Category Archives: Comparative politics

Ludger Helms – Resources, constraints, and the mystery of presidential performance

This is a guest post by Ludger Helms, Professor of Political Science and Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. It is the expanded summary of an article that has just been published in Politics. The full article is ungated and can be accessed free of charge.

As observers of presidential power and leadership we have a vested interest in understanding what makes presidents successful leaders, and what may limit and undermine presidential performance. One of the most basic and popular positions to be encountered in the international literature on presidential power and leadership is that the president’s status and performance depends largely on the number and substance of the resources that he or she commands. Resources are usually considered to include in particular a wealth of institutional and political items (such as the powers of office, the availability of administrative and political support staff, large and stable majorities, or a fresh electoral mandate).

Arguably the greatest advantage of resource-oriented approaches, compared to classic personalist or institutionalist understandings of presidential power and leadership, is that they are keen to avoid both reductionism and determinism, and leave ample room for agency. That is, presidents are not already efficient and successful performers if they command a decent set of resources, but only if they are able to use them adroitly. Still, the dominant assumption of most authors in the field clearly seems to be that the more institutional and political resources are available to a president, the more successful he or she is likely to be.

This may seem plausible, even compelling. And yet, this is not what political reality in many presidential (and other) regimes would appear to correspond to. The presidency of Donald Trump is just the most obvious recent example of a newly elected president whose party controls both the executive and the legislative branch, but who nevertheless conspicuously failed to make any major move for about the first 11 months in power (until the passage of the major tax cut bill early in  December 2017). In terms of job approval, Trump soon became the most unpopular president in the history of political polling. Other examples of presidents who appeared to have what it takes to perform successfully, and still failed spectacularly, can be found. Just think of President François Hollande of France who succeeded what had by then been the Fifth Republic’s most unpopular president, and was the first Socialist president facing a National Assembly and Senate controlled by the Socialist Party. Later on, following the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris of November 2015, he was even fitted with special emergency powers, which seemed set to honour the unspoken promise of crises as welcome opportunities and power boosters for political chief executives. And yet, Hollande ended up as clearly one of the Fifth Republic’s weakest presidents ever, and the only one as yet who did not even dare to seek re-election when his first term drew to a close.

What may seem an arbitrary glance at the larger picture of presidential leadership and performance is actually substantiated by more systematic assessments of the political status and fate of presidents in different regimes. For example, a recent empirical study on US presidents found that ‘presidents are considered stronger under divided as opposed to unified government’, and ‘divided government presidents are more popular than unified government ones’ (Cohen 2015, p. 81). In the same vein, those French presidents that had to perform under the strongly power-restricting state of ‘cohabitation’ (the French counterpart to American ‘divided government’) overall had better re-election records than many presidents commanding a sizeable majority. And while this forum is dedicated to presidential politics, it still seems worth noting that these patterns are not confined to the family of presidential or semi-presidential democracies: Indeed, many prime ministers in parliamentary democracies heading particularly cumbersome coalition governments, widely believed to make prime ministers weak and vulnerable, have enjoyed higher job approval scores than their counterparts in more power-concentrating environments.

How can this be explained? One key to this would appear to be expectations: Presidents commanding an impressive arsenal of institutional and political resources are likely to raise high expectations among the public, which will then play an independent role in shaping presidential performance, or more precisely in influencing the perceived performance of presidents. Ultimately, in politics as elsewhere, virtually all performance is perceived performance, and perceptions tend to be strongly shaped by previous expectations.

A second possible source of this apparent paradox could be the presidents themselves:  Exceptionally resource-rich presidents may tend towards complacency which may undermine the seriousness of their efforts to provide effective problem-solving and leadership, and will eventually be reflected in unfavourable assessments of their performance. Alternatively, they may make full and unconditional use of their resources, possibly resorting to overly aggressive and ruthless leadership styles, in a desperate attempt to meet the towering expectations they face, which is equally unlikely to find the approval and support of the wider public.

Are less resource-rich leaders, after all, better off than their structurally better situated counterparts? As highlighted above, there is some evidence suggesting that, in fact, ‘less can be more’. In order to fully capture this phenomenon, it is useful to remind ourselves that in mainstream political research resources and constraints are widely considered to mark two opposite and complementary phenomena. Understood this way, leaders having few resources at their disposal could, alternatively, be characterized as leaders facing strong constraints. Strictly speaking, of course, even resource-rich leaders may face strong constraints, and leaders facing few obvious constraints may still have limited resources, but the main thrust of the argument is that, other things being equal, resources make leaders powerful, while constraints limit and weaken them.

Rethinking the observations about presidential and prime ministerial performance made above, I suggest to develop an alternative understanding of constraints, and to think of constraints as potential ‘negative resources’. The term ‘negative resource’ seeks to highlight the hidden potential of an apparent constraint. A ‘negative resource’ is a constraint successfully transformed into a positive source that may benefit the status and performance of a political leader. This possible transformation is the result of a complex process which involves in particular a leader’s skills, yet also a wealth of highly contingent contextual factors and, not least, the perception of that leader by others. Again, expectations, in this case modest expectations, would appear to explain much of the support and success that constrained leaders may have. As empirical studies suggest, citizens prefer politicians who set a low expectation and exceed it to those who promise much, and then fail to deliver (Malhotra and Margalit 2014: 1014). But it’s not all about subjective expectations and promises kept: Providing effective leadership from a resource-poor position and in power-dispersing environments marks, by any standard, a more difficult task and greater achievement than simply pulling the levers of power in strongly power-concentrating regimes, and thus deserves to be valued more highly.

More recently, this realization has come to be acknowledged also in normative reflections about leadership in contemporary politics. For most contemporary scholars of political leadership, strong leaders and leadership are two things of the past, not only dated but outright dangerous to any form of genuine democratic governance. Collaborative leadership, shared leadership, and other related concepts are widely seen to mark superior alternative approaches for political leadership in the twenty-first century.

To be sure, all this may seem to amount to a major paradox marking the challenges of presidential leadership, and political leadership more generally, in a new ‘anti-political age’. However, it is important to note that the basic phenomenon is not new at all. In fact, at least since the Philadelphia Convention ambitions have been made ‘to promote ‘leadership’ while constraining ‘leaders’’ (Rhodes and ‘t Hart 2014: 2). It just seems to have taken another quarter of a millennium, witnessing some great successes and many more disastrous failures of political leadership, to truly bring out the deeper truth in this.

References

Cohen, Jeffrey E. (2015) Presidential Leadership in Public Opinion: Causes and Consequences. Cambridge University Press.

Malhotra, N and Margalit Y (2014) Expectation setting and retrospective voting. The Journal of Politics 76:4, 1000-1016.

Rhodes, R.A.W. and Paul ‘t Hart (2014) Puzzles of Political Leadership. In: R.A.W. Rhodes and Paul t’Hart, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-21.

Jessica Fortin-Rittberger – Strong Presidents for Weak Post-communist States

This is a guest post by Jessica Fortin-Rittberger, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Salzburg. It is based on a chapter entitled  “Strong Presidents for Weak States. How Weak State Capacity fosters Vertically Concentrated Executives” in Philipp Harfst, Ina Kubbe, Thomas Poguntke (eds.) Parties, Governments and Elites: The Comparative Study of Democracy, Springer series in comparative politics.

The link between institutions and democratic survival is at the heart of a vibrant scholarly exchange, debating the virtues and perils of parliamentary and presidential systems. Presidentialism in Latin America, but also in former Soviet republics, correlates strongly with authoritarianism. But what if this correlation is an artefact? What if it is rooted in a constellation of conditions that predate the choice of institutions? In other words, are presidential institutions shallow causes of democratic consolidation? In a newly published paper, I argue that the conditions under which different types of executives are chosen following regime transitions are indeed a key to the puzzle. I propose an explanation that suggests that the intrinsic features of presidential systems are less relevant than the conditions that facilitate the installation of vertically-concentrated executive power.

I focus on a specific form of context: infrastructural state capacity understood as “the institutional capacity of a central state, despotic or not, to penetrate its territories and logistically implement decisions” (Mann 1993: 59). Many of the new states that were born after the 18th century, and especially after World War II, were not consolidated and suffered from limited infrastructural capacity. Interestingly, many of these new states also emerged with vertically-concentrated presidential arrangements: I do not think this is a coincidence. In situations where infrastructural state capacity is most deficient, the vertical concentration of executive power in the hands of a few players becomes more likely.

To look into this relationship, I examined 26 post-communist countries over the period between 1989 and 2009. This set of countries is an ideal testing ground to probe this relationship, since the environment of state capacity is temporally prior to the selection of institutions. Most new constitutions were established in a time period ranging from a few months (Hungary) to up to five years (Ukraine) after the collapse of communism. To capture the level of power concentration in the hands of the executive, I employed two indicators. Table 1 presents the scores of both indicators in the year of the first post-communist constitution. The first encapsulates the formal level of power concentration from Frye, Hellman and Tucker’s Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World (2000). In this measurement, powers of popularly elected presidents are scored from (1) to (21), where (1) represents the weakest presidents in terms of constitutional provisions, and (21) the presidents endowed with the most prerogatives. The second indicator taps into informal practices. I used the item called “constraints on chief executive” from the Polity IV dataset (Marshall and Jaggers, 2012). This measures the operational (de facto) independence of the chief executive in relations to other players. The categories range from (1) where the chief executive has unlimited authority, through (7) where the chief executive is at parity or subordination to other institutional players (legislative assembly, prime minister, constitutional court). Harnessing both formal and informal aspects of executive power allows me to grasp the phenomenon of power concentration in an encompassing fashion.

The analyses provide unambiguous support for my core argument that state capacity is crucial to establish executive dominance over other institutional players. State capacity at the onset of independence (or transition) helps to explain the level of executive power concentration in the newly designed constitutions. This means that in environments with weak infrastructural state capacity it is easier for politicians aiming to secure state power or to access to the state’s power resources to push for the adoption of strong, vertical forms of executive power. Once in place, these power structures have proven quite durable, although some countries have recently enacted reforms to curb executive power, at least on paper. This also helps explain why the record of presidentialism has been so dire in the region; it is not the institution of a president per se that is harmful to democracy, rather the extent to which power is concentrated.

Even though I find these strong relationships in my research, there are some important caveats. Many of these institutional setups are static over time, hence my models face difficulties to explain recent occurrences of executive power concentration that were accompanied with democratic backsliding. Turkey is a case in point, where we can observe the demise of a democracy in a brazen power grab at the hands of a leader seeking to establish a presidential vertical. Yet, the state was not weak at that point. Hungary is another example, with the authoritarian tendencies of its government, and Prime Minister, to curtail political rights and freedoms, as well as dilute institutional checks and balances. Hungary is particularly problematic for my argument, since it should have been a least likely candidate for such a reversal.

A strong state is therefore no guarantee against executives engaging in power grabs; a weak state simply makes it easier.

Works cited:

Frye, T., Hellmann, J. S. & Tucker, J. 2000. Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World, unpublished, Columbia University.

Mann, M. 1993. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, M. G. & Jaggers, K. 2012. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2012. The Polity IV dataset

Catherine Reyes-Housholder – Presidentas Rise: Consequences for Women in Cabinets?

This is a guest post by Catherine Reyes-Housholder, Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. It is based on her paper, “Presidentas Rise: Consequences for Women in Cabinets?”, published in Latin American Politics and Society, 58 (3): 3-25, 2016.

More and more scholars and citizens want to know not only how women access presidential power, but what women do with this power once they are in office. Do female presidents use their power to promote change favoring women? I tackle this question by examining gender in the executive branch in Latin America—a region that has elected female presidents more times (nines so far) than any other region of the world.

There are some theoretical reasons to believe that female presidents will use their presidential power to promote change favoring women. In a recent article in Latin American Politics and Society, I argued that female presidents are more likely than male presidents to nominate women to their cabinets.

There are two reasons for this. The first speaks to bottom-up pressures from voters and the second to top-down, elite factors. First, female presidents are more likely than their male counterparts to interpret their mandate as a call for a greater female presence in the executive branch. Voting for a female president could easily be interpreted as a desire not just for a female president, but also for more female ministers. Female presidents thus may appoint more women to their cabinets because they believe their constituencies want them to.

Turning to top-down factors, the second reason has to do with the kinds of personal qualities presidents seek when they choose their ministers. In Latin America, presidents have virtually no formal restrictions on who they can nominate (i.e. no legislative body approves the presidents’ ministerial picks). So much of cabinet decision-making is based on informal considerations.

Presidents tend to seek ministerial candidates with two specific qualities: like-mindedness and loyalty. They look for like-minded ministers because they need someone who generally agrees with their policy ideas, or is at least like-minded enough to productively disagree and produce a better solution. Presidents also need loyal ministers who will faithfully execute their legislative agenda and are unlikely to threaten their hold on power.

Why would female presidents be more likely than male presidents to perceive women as more like-minded and loyal? The homophily principle and scholarship on gendered political networks helps explain this. Gender homophily is the recurring phenomenon where, ceteris paribus, women tend to associate more with women and men tend to associate more with men. Studies on gendered political networks suggest that male-dominance tends to feed on itself, making it difficult for women to penetrate male networks. On the flip side, because elite female politicians are more likely than their male counterparts to network with women, female presidents are more likely to perceive elite female politicians as like-minded and loyal.

So there are two reasons why we should expect female presidents and female ministers to present certain affinities. First, female presidents are more likely to face bottom-up pressures to do so. Second, female presidents are more likely to view female ministerial candidates as like-minded and loyal. They therefore face elite-based incentives to name more female ministers. These bottom-up mandate and top-down elite variables may both function as mechanisms linking presidents’ sex to a use of power to enhance women’s presence in cabinets.

But there’s a catch. While male presidents often historically have named all-male cabinets, female presidents are highly unlikely to completely exclude men. This is in part because female presidents face an informal constraint in assembling their cabinets. One of the most important constraints on their ability to name female ministers is the supply of female ministerial candidates. One major determinant of the supply is “political capital resources,” which can refer to relationships with party elites and with industries or social groups related to a particular ministry (i.e. women’s groups for Women’s Ministries).

Because women are less likely than men to possess “political capital resources,” the female pool ministerial candidates is generally much more shallow than the male pool. So I also argue that female presidents are more likely to “make a difference” in terms of women’s presence in cabinets when the pool of female ministerial candidates is deepest. Right after their inauguration, the pool for both male and female candidates is deeper than later on in the presidential term. As presidents later fire and hire ministers, the pool of qualified candidates will continue to shrink. I predicted that female presidents’ decision-making in naming women to cabinet is most likely to statistically differ from male presidents’ decision-making at the beginning rather than at the end of their terms.

The depth of the female ministerial pool also depends on certain characteristics of ministries. Some ministries are more associated with traditionally “feminine” roles and qualities—for example education and health. Others, namely defense and finance, are more “masculine.” There will tend to be more female ministerial candidates for “feminine” ministries because female politicians are more likely to possess political capital resources in traditionally feminine domains than traditionally masculine domains. For example, female politicians are more likely to possess political capital resources in areas of education rather than defense; they are more likely to have networked with social organizations related to schools than the military.

In short, I argue that female presidents overall are more likely than their male counterparts to name women to the cabinets. However, due to supply constraints, female presidents’ impact will likely be strongest for their inaugural cabinets and for “feminine” ministries.

I tested this theory on an original database of all inaugural and end-of-term cabinets by all democratically elected presidents from 1999-2015 in 18 Latin American countries. The dataset included 1,908 ministers. I found some evidence that presidentas in Latin America tended to name more women to their cabinets, and the most consistent evidence showed that they were more likely to name women to their inaugural cabinets and to “feminine” ministries. The dataset is located on the Harvard dataverse and on my web site www.reyes-housholder.com where you can access all the documents you would need to replicate my findings.

To conclude, there are theoretical reasons to believe and empirical evidence showing that female presidents will use at least their delegative power to improve women’s numerical representation in the executive branch.

New book series – Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics: Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli (series editors)

We are announcing a new book series, Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics. The series is edited by Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli and the books will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. The series will include books on all aspects of presidential politics. We are currently accepting proposals for books in the series. The first volume, authored Philipp Köker, will be published in 2017.

Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics will include books on contemporary presidencies, including presidential powers, the administrative presidency, and presidential advisers, as well as the history of presidential offices, and presidential biographies. The series will also include books on presidential elections, including presidential party politics, and the media and presidential communication.

The series will focus on presidents throughout the world including the US, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, including both directly elected and indirectly elected presidents. The series will publish single-country and comparative studies of presidential politics. The series will also publish books on individual presidents. The series will focus primarily on empirical studies of presidential politics, but it could include volumes on conceptual or theoretical aspects, such as how to measure presidential power.

The series will publish books that look at the reform of presidential politics, e.g. the reform of presidential elections. However, it will not publish obviously partisan, clearly normative, or personally critical studies of presidents or presidential politics. The series will have a disinterested, academic focus.

The series will normally take the form of 80,000-word monographs, or edited volumes. However, shorter books, or Palgrave Pivots, will also be considered. To submit a proposal, you should complete a proposal form. These are available from Ambra Finotello (ambra.finotello@palgrave.com), or from the series editors.

For further information about the series and to submit a proposal for consideration, please contact Ambra Finotello (ambra.finotello@palgrave.com) at Palgrave, or the series editors, Robert Elgie (robert.elgie@dcu.ie), and Gianluca Passarelli (gianluca.passarelli@uniroma1.it).

Feel free to send an informal e-mail to the series editors if you wish to discuss a book idea prior to the formal submission of a proposal. We look forward to hearing your ideas for books and to receiving your submissions.

Executive-Legislative Relations and Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe

This is a post by Anna Fruhstorfer, Postdoc at Humboldt University Berlin, who – together with her colleague Michael Hein – is the editor of the new book Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems, published by Springer VS.

With its changes in the political and economic realm, 1989 to many citizens in Central and Eastern Europe marked a spark of great hope for the establishment of a western-style political, legal, and economic order. The aim of the new elite was the introduction of democracy and the rule of law. One important tool to achieve these goals was that of constitutions. The post-1989 constitution-making processes have also been widely discussed in political science research (Arato 2000; Elster 1993; Elster, Offe & Preuß 1998; Holmes & Sunstein 1995; Kitschelt 1994; Sartori 1997). However, since then it has become apparent that the different countries’ pathways do not fulfill the great hopes referred to above. Either the pathways were longer than initially expected or they reached an impasse due to (semi‑)authoritarianism and a poverty trap. These only partially fulfilled hopes also apply to the development of the constitutional systems (see also Rosenfeld, Sadurski & Toniatti 2015).

Against this background, we analyze constitutional politics in 20 post-socialist countries from two perspectives. We focus on constitutional politics following the implementation of the first post-soviet constitution after 1989 and examine all successful amendments and unsuccessful draft amendments, including failed attempts to establish a new constitution, up until 2015.[1] Thus, we considerably broaden the perspective on constitutional studies, since failed amendment initiatives have hardly ever been studied[2], even though such a “success-oriented” angle significantly narrows the data and information on constitutional processes (see Mahoney & Thelen 2010). We focus on three main research questions: How do democratization or autocratization processes influence constitutional politics and vice versa? Do external actors exert a significant influence on constitutional politics? And: Is the ‘transition paradigm’ still applicable to Central and Eastern Europe?

Constitutional politics after the enactment of the first post-socialist constitutions in Central and Eastern Europe – here used in the narrow sense of constitution-making, constitutional amendments, and the national discourse about the constitution and its changes – have dealt with a broad spectrum of topics. In our analysis of 20 Central and Eastern European countries, we find that there is virtually no individual constitutional subfield that has not been the target of amendments or amendment initiatives in at least one of these countries. With this perspective, the variety of topics has led us to assume that certain patterns of constitutional politics might be distinguished.

Most certainly, we can observe problems of path dependence and action constraints. These have particularly emerged with regard to the democracy-autocracy divide. In particular, Belarus and Russia present a case of a thorough autocratization[3], whereas e.g. in Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Moldova certain constitutional provisions ultimately led to democratic deficits or were not helpful in preventing them. However, we can also see the light at the end of the tunnel, i.e. countries in which constitutional politics can actually make a positive difference. The constitutional amendments pursued in Poland solved severe inter-institutional conflicts, and in Croatia and Slovakia semi-autocratic structures were actually replaced with a democratic constitutional arrangement.

The most important constitutional subfields are legislative-executive relations, national identity and minority rights, and aspects related to EU accession. In this post we focus primarily on the findings concerning the relationship between presidents and cabinets within the executive. We particularly expected to find draft amendments in this realm in countries with conflict-prone constitutional specifications, such as Albania, Croatia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. And indeed, the question of presidential power, the agent-principal relation between president and prime minister, and questions of negative or positive parliamentarism dominated both constitutional discourses and politics in a number of countries (in particular in Albania, Croatia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine). Whereas in two of those cases the respective problems in the institutional design were solved by means of a thorough constitutional reform (in Croatia) or a new constitution (in Poland), in the other four cases constitutional reforms did not lead to an enduring pacification of institutional conflicts or a higher efficiency of governance. Not surprisingly, Albania, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine are the countries in our group of 20 cases that witnessed the most serious crises at the heart of their governmental systems.

We believe that these crises, or sometimes even shifts between authoritarianism and democracy, are closely related to constitutional politics. Constitutions can provide the context within which a democracy can thrive (e.g. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovenia). However, sometimes constitutional politics also contribute to a failed democratization (Belarus after 1994, Croatia and Serbia until 2000/2001). We see that autocratization virtually appears as constitutional choice by design, in particular by establishing over-powerful presidential institutions (e.g. Albania, especially until 1998, or Belarus). Furthermore, constitutional choices concerning executive-legislative relations can also become a ‘political battlefield’, such as in Moldova or Ukraine, where executive-legislative relations, or in particular the choice between a premier-presidentialism or presidential-parliamentarism, were vigorously debated. Yet, constitutional amendments have not necessarily advanced the countries’ democratic development (as exemplified by the ‘ping-pong game’ in Ukraine or the constitutional and political stalemate 2009–2012 in Moldova). Thus, some of the country studies suggest that not only the degree of democratic quality, but also the direction of democratic development can be represented in a constitution. Aleksandr Lukašenko, Slobodan Milošević, Franjo Tuđman, and Vladimir Putin did not gain their powerful positions only – if at all – by breaking the constitution. The constitutional choices made during early post-socialist transition have instead featured as a necessary condition for their successes. And although the type of governmental system certainly has no clear causal effect on the success or failure of democracy (see in particular, and representative for the debate, Cheibub 2007), the constitutional crises in these countries did center around the question of legislative-executive relations, thus making the type of governmental system the focal point of the constitutional debate regarding the success of democratization in Central and Eastern Europe.

References
Arato, Andrew 2000. Civil society, constitution, and legitimacy: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Cheibub, José A. 2007. Presidentialism, parliamentarism, and democracy: Cambridge University Press.
Elster, Jon 1993. Constitution-making in Eastern Europe: Rebuilding the boat in the open sea. Public Administration 71(1-2), 169–217.
Elster, Jon, Offe, Claus & Preuß, Ulrich K. 1998. Institutional Design in Post-communist Societies. Rebuilding the Ship at Sea. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Fruhstorfer, Anna & Hein, Michael 2016. Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems. Wiesbaden. Springer VS.
Holmes, Stephen & Sunstein, Cass 1995. The politics of constitutional revision in Eastern Europe, in Levinson, Sanford (Hg.): Responding to imperfection: the theory and practice of constitutional amendment: Princeton University Press, 275–306.
Kitschelt, Herbert 1994. Rationale Verfassungswahl? Zum Design von Regierungssystemen in neuen Konkurrenzdemokratien. URL: http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/documents/ovl/kitschelt-herbert/PDF/Kitschelt.pdf [Stand 2010-07-28].
Köppl, Stefan 2003. Vergebliches Bemühen um Veränderung: Gescheiterte Anläufe zur Reform der italienischen Verfassung. Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen, 310–329.
Lutz, Donald S. 1994. Toward a theory of constitutional amendment. American Political Science Review, 355–370.
Mahoney, James & Thelen, Kathleen 2010. Explaining Institutional Change. Ambiguity, Agency, and Power, in Mahoney, James & Thelen, Kathleen (Hg.): Explaining Institutional Change. Ambiguity, Agency, and Power. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1–37.
Rasch, Bjørn E. & Congleton, Roger D. 2006. 12. Amendment Procedures and Constitutional Stability. URL: http://rdc1.net/forthcoming/DCD%20(Chap%2012,%20Amendment%20Procedures,%20Congleton%20and%20Rausch).pdf [Stand 2016-06-21].
Rosenfeld, Michel, Sadurski, Wojciech & Toniatti, Roberto 2015. Central and Eastern European constitutionalism a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall: Introduction to the Symposium. International Journal of Constitutional Law 13(1), 119–123.
Sartori, Giovanni 1997. Comparative Constitutional Engineering. An Inquiry into Structures, Incentives and Outcomes. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

[1]  The selection criterion here is that such attempts have at least gone through the formal amendment procedure as outlined by the valid constitution.
[2]  The rare exceptions are Köppl (2003), Rasch and Congleton (2006), and Lutz (1994).
[3]  All references to individual countries refer to the analysis in the respective country chapters in the edited volume (Fruhstorfer and Hein 2016).

Presidential Success and the World Economy

This is a guest post from Daniela Campello and Cesar Zucco Jr., both professors at FGV/EBAPE Rio de Janeiro, based on their recent paper in the Journal of Politics, “Presidential Success and the World Economy.”

For the economic vote to work as a mechanism of democratic accountability, voters need to be able to properly assign responsibility for economic performance (Ashworth 2012). In “Presidential Success and the World Economy” we show that this assumption does not always hold. The paper examines the extent to which Latin American presidents are punished and rewarded by economic conditions that were brought about by factors beyond their control. We find, in a nutshell, that this misattribution happens very often, at least in a subset of countries in the region, and argue that this  severely limits democratic accountability in the region.

Our general empirical strategy in the paper is to predict presidential reelection and approval ratings using only international variables that are exogenous to any action taken by presidents, but that have substantial impact in economic performance. The logic of the argument is that these factors should not predict the political outcomes if voters actively discounted “chance” when evaluating presidents based on economic outcomes.

It has been long established in the Economics literature that commodity prices and US interest rates largely influence the domestic economic performance of countries in Latin America (see, for instance, Malan & Bonelli 1977). Commodity prices operate through trade, as most countries in the region are commodity exporters (Maxfield 1998, Gavin, Hausmann & Leiderman 1995, Izquierdo, Romero & Talvo 2008). International interest rates operate through the financial channel, as capital flows to emerging economies tend to respond to the international costs of capital (Calvo, Leiderman & Reinhart 1996, Santiso 2003). The first contribution of the paper is to combine these two variables into the “Good Economic Times Index” (GET), which provides a cogent summary of the recent economic history of the so-called  low-savings-commodity-exporting (LSCE) countries of the region, mostly those in South America.

figure1

The figure shows the values of GET since the early 1980s. It reflects the hike in U.S.  interest rates in 1979 that  precipitated a debt crisis that ravaged the region, which coupled with extremely low commodity prices, produced the 1980s’ “lost decade.” In the early 1990s, lower US  interest rates prompted a boom of private capital inflows that helped improve economic conditions, which worsened again with the increase in interest rates that triggered the financial crises that marked the end of the decade.  In the 2000s, rising commodity prices combined with even lower interest rates to fuel a period of unprecedented wealth creation. In this context, the “great recession” was no more than a ripple in a region that was shielded from the crisis by high commodity prices and further decreases in US interest rates. The sharp drop in GET observed in the last few years contributes to explaining the economic downturn experienced throughout the region since 2012. Not surprisingly, as we show in the paper higher values of GET are associated with more growth, less inflation, less unemployment, and less “misery” in LSCE countries, but not in other Latin American countries, which we refer to as the “comparison group”.

Interestingly, the GET index is a very strong predictor of presidential success in the LSCE countries, but not in the comparison group. In a set of all free and fair elections in the region since 1980, we estimate that an increase from the 25th to the 75th percentile of GET is associated with almost 0.5 higher probability of reelection (understood as either personal reelection or election of the incumbent sponsored candidate) in LSCE countries. GET also predicts the presidents’ popularity in Brazil — the largest LSCE country — since the late 1980s, but not in Mexico — the largest country in the comparison group. A one standard-deviation increase in GET leads approximately to a 15% increase in popularity over an 18 month period. GET, alone, has the same predictive power as a large set of domestic economic variables.

Our results stand in contrast to recent empirical work, mostly on developed democracies,  which  shows  that voters’ capacity to assess and discount the impact of exogenous factors enables them to punish and reward incumbents exclusively for outcomes of their own making (Duch & Stevenson, Kayser & Peress etc). Authors have suggested that this capacity develops as citizens observe the global economy and benchmark their country’s  performance.  In our paper, we conjecture that inward-looking models of development, citizens’ relatively low media consumption, and relatively low levels of political and economic integration limit Latin American voters’ awareness of regional trends. As a result, citizens lack the elements to  benchmark their country’s economy, and to discount the impact of common exogenous shocks. Without this discounting, the power of the economic vote to hold leaders accountable is severely curtailed, as presidents are rewarded/punished for their good/bad luck.

We are currently conducting follow-up research to examine three important extensions of these findings. The first is to examine experimentally the conditions under which voters manage to discount exogenous factors when evaluating the president, or to overcome their “attribution bias.” The other is to determine theoretically and empirically — also through experiments — how presidents behave when they know their fate is determined by exogenous factors, a topic that speaks to literature on populism and corruption. Finally, we are looking at the role of local media in  enabling voters to correctly assign responsibility for economic performance.

References

Ashworth, Scott. 2012. “Electoral accountability: recent theoretical and empirical work.” Annual Review of Political Science 15:183-201

Calvo, Guillermo, Leonardo Leiderman & Carmen M. Reinhart. 1996. “Inflows of Capitalto Developing Countries in the 1990s.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 10(2):123-39

Duch, Raymond M. & Randolph T. Stevenson. 2008. The Economic Vote: How Political  Institutions Condition Election Result. New York: Cambridge University Press

Gavin, Michael, Ricardo Hausmann & Leonardo Leiderman. 1995. “Macroeconomics ofCapital Flows to Latin America.” Working Paper IADB 4012(3):389-431

Izquierdo, Alejandro, Randall Romero & Ernesto Talvi. 2008. “Booms and Busts in LatinAmerica: The Role of External Factors.” IADB Working Paper 89(631):2-31

Kayser, Mark & Michael Peress. 2012. “Benchmarking across borders: electoral accountability  and the necessity of comparison.” American Political Science Review 106(3):661-684

Malan, Pedro S & Regis Bonelli. 1977. “The Brazilian economy in the seventies: old and new developments.” World Development 5(1):19-45

Maxeld, Sylvia. 1998. “Eects of International Portfolio Flows on Government Policy Choice”, In Capital Flows and Financial Crises, ed. Miles Kahler. New Jersey: Council of Foreign Relations pp. 69-92

Santiso, Javier. 2003. The Political Economy of Emerging Markets – Actors, Institutions and Financial Crises in Latin America. New York: Pallgrave McMillan

Sun Woo Lee – The Politics of Prosecution Service Reform in New Presidential Democracies

This is a guest post by Sun-Woo Lee, a post-doctoral researcher of the College of Social Science, Seoul National University. It is a summary of his paper ‘The politics of prosecution service reform in new presidential democracies: The South Korea and Russia cases in comparative perspective’ that is being published by the Journal of Eurasian Studies.

Recently, the political distortion of criminal justice by prosecutors has arisen as a serious dilemma in several new democracies, though this issue has received somewhat less attention than the judicialization of politics by courts. Indeed, prosecutors of civil-law countries must receive more attention in that they generally initiate criminal investigations, command police officers during the investigations, terminate the criminal cases at their disposal, and indict the criminal suspects for trials in the centralized and inquisitorial criminal justice system (e.g. Germany, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea). Thus civil-law prosecutors can exercise enough power to manipulate pre-trial criminal proceedings, not only in order to stigmatize a certain political faction as immoral or criminal suspect, but also to grant immunity to another.

Of course it cannot be concluded that civil-law prosecutors always have chances to distort criminal proceedings for political purposes. Under consensual forms of government in Continental Europe, a suprapartisan coalition has been required to select top-ranking judicial officers. Moreover, the composition of an incumbent government unpredictedly changes when an assembly dissolves, regardless of regular elections, or when a shift of power occurs within a ruling party. Hence, civil-law prosecutors also tend to exercise their far-reaching power not in favor of a particular political faction, but in a depoliticized manner, for their career development.

By contrast, in several young democracies adopting a presidential system, which gave the president almost exclusive control over high-ranking prosecutors’ career, along with the Third Wave of democratization, civil-law prosecutors have a strong incentive to exercise their extensive power in favor of an incumbent president during most of his or her fixed tenure, but to betray him or her at his or her last phase, for their career progress. In practice, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan, Young-Sam Kim and Dae-Jung Kim in South Korea and Boris Yeltsin in Russia dominated that office during most of their tenure but experienced prosecutorial defection at their final phase. However, an interesting point is that a civil-law prosecution system could hardly be reformed, although there were several attempts to correct the dilemma of the politicized prosecutors, in the new presidential democracies. Why?

In presidential democracies, civil-law prosecutors can enjoy a favorable political opportunity for deflecting reform against them and protecting their powers and position, even though politicians actually attempt such a change. An incumbent president will at times pursue a long-term interest in reform against the prosecutors, particularly owing to the possibility of their habitual betrayal before and after his or her retirement. Nonetheless, the prosecutors can easily defeat the president’s reform either by lobbying or placating the president, given that he or she is bound to fear political losses resulting from their defection. In fact, unless the prosecutors guard an incumbent president, he or she may become the most vulnerable political actor to the politicization of criminal justice, considering the probability that the president would be involved in corruption is much higher than for any other politician. Thus an incumbent president is likely to abandon prosecution service reform readily or be satisfied only with small achievements, but to seek his or her short-term interest in forming alliance with this power agency. In this usual circumstance, opposition parties would more often have the long-term interest in prosecution service reform than the president. Nevertheless, as long as the alliance between the president and prosecutors is sustained, the opposition forces will be persecuted and therefore cannot accomplish the reform.

However, if an incumbent president dares to launch major reform against civil-law prosecutors repeatedly, they are likely to resist his or her attempts vigorously. This is clearly a rational option for the prosecutors, because the cost his or her reform would impose on them is heavy, whereas the effect their resistance could provide is great, because of the political opportunity structure favorable for them. Since curtailment of the prosecutors’ great powers as prerogatives runs sharply against their collective interest, all the members can be motivated to engage in collective action. Moreover, the high-ranking prosecutors’ loss, when becoming a traitor to their own organization, is no less than their individual benefit from career advancement in exchange for their loyalty to the reformist president. On the other side, an incumbent president in fact has no way to protect his or her faction members from the prosecutors’ willful investigation or indictment. In addition, opposition parties which have pursued to reform the prosecution system would also reverse their previous position in order to take advantage of the conflict between the president and prosecutors. That is, they would no longer have a strong incentive to support prosecution service reform, given that political scandals involving the president’s faction are being intentionally disclosed by the agency. Then vigorous competition among the media to get the first reports of political scandals could also enhance the prosecutors’ political influence.

Indeed, this logical development may not spontaneously be applied to the prosecutorial reform cases of consensual parliamentary countries. A coalition government relying on parliamentary majority can more easily make an agreement between various political forces, on the curtailment of extensive power of the prosecution service, and therefore enforce the agency to abandon its prerogatives, while the government would essentially have relatively less incentive to attempt such a reform, as noted above. By contrast, an incumbent president would be unable to maintain the momentum for large-scale reform against the prosecutors, encountering their strong resistance, and correspondingly the latter could succeed in protecting their privileges from the former.

Even in presidential countries, nonetheless, the political opportunity enabling the prosecutors to make effective resistance to a reformist president would be gone, if the president becomes no longer vulnerable to the political manipulation of criminal justice. We can assume that a hegemonic party would dominate domestic politics, or a semi-authoritarian regime would emerge in new democracies. Then political competition would be significantly weakened for quite a while. But an important point is that even a semi-authoritarian president would pursue the long-term interest in curtailing the power of civil-law prosecutors and consequently in making them politically impartial, for fear of the time whenever he or she loses his or her own hegemony, as long as regular elections are formally held. Indeed, the more power an authoritarian ruler holds in his or her hands, the more interests he or she has in undermining any power base for future challengers. Under the weak political competition in a semi-authoritarian regime, however, an incumbent president can succeed in the prosecution service reform, differently from the case of competitive democracies. This is because the president would become much freer from losing moral foundations and public support than in competitive electoral democracies, even if the prosecutors intentionally institute criminal proceedings against his or her faction members. As a consequence, the prosecutors are likely to abandon their resistance against the president, and correspondingly to accept even unfavorable changes imposed on them. In June 2007, this occurred in Russia.

Although more empirical research on other countries would be beneficial, this means that a civil-law or inquisitorial country adopting presidentialism along with its democratization, “ironically,” may not be successful in correcting the dilemma of the politicization of the prosecution service until a semi-authoritarian regime reappears.

Sun-Woo Lee obtained PhD (Politics) from University of Glasgow (UK) in 2014. And he is currently a post-doctoral researcher of the College of Social Science, Seoul National University. His research interests are comparative politics, Russian politics, Korean politics and Northeast Asian international relations. He has published several papers in many academic journals, such as Development and Society, and Journal of Politics and Law

Comoros – Presidential Election Threatens Fragile Stability

Dubbed the ‘coup-coup islands’ due to a legacy of violent government takeovers, the small African island nation of Comoros (population: 800.000) has long been one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. Upon attaining independence in 1975, one of the four Comorian islands – Mayotte – voted to remain part of France, and in 2011 became a French Overseas Department. While the French incorporation of Mayotte was considered illegal by the United Nations, the significantly higher standards of living on this island stimulated secessionist aspirations on the two smaller Comorian islands – Anjouan and Mohéli – which also desired to be released from the largest island of Grande Comore, and to be reunited with France. After nearly three decades marred by successive coups, violent uprisings, and enduring economic malaise, in 2002 a unique electoral system that provides for a rotating presidency between the three islands was adopted. Every five years, a president from a different Comorian island is elected for a single term. Presidential elections are held under the French two-round system, but in the first round only voters on the island delivering the next president can participate. The three candidates with the most votes take part in a second round, in which all eligible Comorian voters can cast a ballot.

The first elections under the new system were won by Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore, who ruled the archipelago until 2006. Subsequently, presidents were elected from Anjouan (2006 – 2011) and Mohéli (2011 – 2016). While the economic situation on Comoros remains dire, and political violence has not been completely eradicated, the fact that all presidents elected under the new system were able to complete their term in office is widely regarded as a considerable achievement.

On 21 February 2016, the first round of a new presidential election was held on Grande Comore, which according to the constitution would deliver the next president. The outcome was close, and the top three candidates all obtained between 14 and 18 per cent of the votes. Among them was former president Assoumani, who in 1999 had staged a successful military coup, and contemporary vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilihi, who emerged as the winner of the first round. The second round of voting, which was held on 10 April 2016, again resulted in a very close outcome: Assoumani was declared the winner with 40,98% of votes, while Soilihi finished second with 39,87% of votes. While international observers considered the election to be free and fair, and the UN Secretary General congratulated the Comorian people with a peaceful election process, numerous irregularities were reported from the island of Anjouan, among which broken ballot boxes, accusations of ballot stuffing, and acts of violence. As a result, the Comoros constitutional court ordered a partial re-run of the election on this island, which occurred on 15 May 2016. Only 2% of the Comorian electorate was allowed to participate in the re-run, which did not produce a significantly different result: Assoumani remained the winner with 41,43% of votes, while Soilihi remained a close challenger with 39,66% of ballots cast.

The recent Comorian presidential election once more underscored the fragile political situation in the archipelago, which remains plagued by inter-island hostilities and separatism. The lack of a single Comorian identity, as well as the divisive effects of the integration of Mayotte into metropolitan France, continue to undermine economic and political progress in the island nation. Economic growth dwindled from 3,5% to 1% over the last two years, and while the new political system has put an end to the series of violent coups, it has not solved the formidable challenges and obstacles that continue to beset the Union of the Comoros.

Esra Çuhadar, Juliet Kaarbo, Baris Kesgin, Binnur Ozkececi-Taner – Do Personalities Change when Prime Ministers Become Presidents?

This is a guest post by Esra Çuhadar, Juliet Kaarbo, Baris Kesgin, Binnur Ozkececi-Taner. Research for this blogpost and the related research was supported by a TUBITAK Evrena grant (110K112) and a BAGEP award from the Science Academy.

Institutional perspectives in political science have been critical of personality theories, arguing that individuals’ behaviors can easily vary with different institutional incentives, constraints and opportunities, and role expectations. In opposition, personality approaches see individual characteristics as resilient and resisting change in case of situations and contexts. As this debate remains unresolved, in a recent study published in Political Psychology, we asked two questions: Do all political leaders change their personality characteristics when they occupy different institutional roles? And, which aspects of personalities are most likely to change across role positions? More specifically, we sought to understand what types of leaders would be most likely to change their expressed political personality when they came into a new political position. Our examination of three leaders who held different institutional roles in Turkish politics provided us with the opportunity for this theoretical investigation. We investigated and compared the personality profiles of three Turkish leaders—Suleyman Demirel, Abdullah Gul, and Turgut Ozal—and examined any changes in their leadership traits across roles. Each leader served as both prime minister and president –Gul was also minister of foreign affairs. Our study must be considered preliminary, and is suggestive of future research to develop our understanding of agents’ interactions with institutional structures.

Our study utilizes the Leadership Trait Analysis (LTA) framework.  As a prominent approach to the study of political leaders, LTA framework conceptualizes personality as a combination of seven traits: belief in an ability to control events, conceptual complexity, need for power, distrust of others, in-group bias, self-confidence, and task orientation. These seven traits combine in particular ways to produce specific behaviors by leaders. For example, leaders, who have a high belief in their ability to control events and a high need for power, are expected to challenge constraints; leaders low in need for power and/or who do not believe they can control events are expected to respect constraints. Conceptual complexity and self-confidence are related to and predict leaders’ openness to information. Leaders with high scores on both traits and leaders who have high complexity and low self-confidence are expected to be open to information, whereas leaders with low scores on both traits and leaders with high self-confidence and low complexity are expected to be closed to information. These two composite traits combine with a leader’s motivation for leading to produce a typology of eight different leadership styles, namely active independent, collegial, evangelical, directive, expansionist, incremental, influential, and opportunistic.

Taking advantage of the Turkish political context in which prime minister and presidency roles are defined very clearly and differently by the Turkish constitution, and in which our three selected leaders served in both of these roles, we used a quasi-experimental design to first construct these leaders’ personality profiles and then examine them comparatively across roles.  More specifically, we proposed that personality characteristics are more likely to change when certain types of leaders change roles.  More specifically, we expected the following:

  • Leaders who respect constraints (low in belief in ability to control events and low in need for power) are more likely to change other traits when they change roles.
  • Leaders open to information (high in complexity and high in self-confidence) are more likely to change other traits when they change roles.
  • Leaders with higher scores on complexity are more likely to change other traits when they change roles.

We also expected some personality characteristics are more likely to change when new roles carry with them specific expectations and responsibilities. For example, we suggested that

  • Task focus may be more likely to shift from goal-oriented to relationship oriented if the leader shifts to a less policy-focused position (e.g., from prime minister to president position).
  • In-group bias is likely to decrease when the leader shifts from a partisan role (e.g., prime minister elected from a political party) to a less partisan role (e.g., president).
  • Belief in ability to control events is likely to decline with a change from the prime minister to president role because prime ministers are considered the “doer” role, and presidents are more symbolic in parliamentary systems.

Our results support the expectation that leaders’ personalities can remain stable across different institutional roles. Personality characteristics for our leaders exhibited little change, when these leaders changed roles. We observed change in the same direction—all declined from prime minister to president profile—in three of the traits: belief in ability to control events, need for power, and task focus. However, in only one of these traits (task focus), we saw significant difference across roles. This finding has led us to conclude that personality is not directly determined by institutional incentives. We infer that this is expected by the changes in demands and expectations of the Turkish prime minister and president roles as articulated in the constitution. While the prime minister is a more active executive position emphasizing problem solving and policy implementation, the presidency is highlighted for its consensus building and above-politics status.

We also found that our leaders varied from one another, and from other world leaders.  In other words, while there is no single (Turkish) president or prime minister profile, there is no one Turkish leader profile either. This finding is important as it helps us to evaluate another theoretical suggestion: that certain types of leaders may be more likely to change traits when they change roles. Our assessment provided mixed support for this argument. The trait stability we observed in two of our leaders was consistent with their orientations to challenge constraints, but this did not hold for all leaders. There was no clear pattern for openness to information as a mediating variable and mixed support for complexity as we had hypothesized and self-confidence.

We encourage future research to take seriously the specific role demands associated with institutional positions and how leaders’ personalities interact with those demands. This would build on our study (published in the Journal of International Relations and Development) that examines Turkish leaders’ reactions to a variety of structural constraints.  A particularly promising avenue for future research would integrate work on role identities and their effects on personality traits. The relative potency of individual differences and institutional positions is an important question, worthy of further empirical exploration and theoretical development.

Esra Çuhadar is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Bilkent University in Turkey. She was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University during the 2011-2012 academic year. Dr. Cuhadar’s research interests include conflict resolution and political psychology. Her research has been published in academic journals such as Political Psychology, Computers in Human Behavior, Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, Negotiation Journal, International Negotiation, Journal of Peace Research, Mediterranean Politics, International Studies Perspectives, Turkish Studies and Perceptions and also in various book chapters. Dr Cuhadar received one of the Young Scientist Awards (BAGEP) by the Science Academy in Turkey and received research grants from USIP, Sabanci University, TUBITAK, and German Marshall Fund.

Juliet Kaarbo is Professor in Foreign Policy at the University of Edinburgh and co-director of Edinburgh’s Centre for Security Research.  Her research focuses on political psychology, leadership and decision making, group dynamics, foreign policy analysis and theory, parliamentary political systems, and national roles and has appeared in numerous journals including International Studies Quarterly, European Journal of International Relations, International Studies Review, Political Psychology, Cooperation and Conflict, International Interactions, Foreign Policy Analysis, and Leadership Quarterly.   Kaarbo’s books include Coalition Politics and Cabinet Decision Making:  A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Policy Choices University of Michigan Press 2012) and Domestic Role Contestation, Foreign Policy and International Relations (co-edited with Cristian Cantir; Routledge 2016).

Baris Kesgin is Assistant Professor Political Science at Susquehanna University. He specializes in foreign policy analysis and political leadership -more specially, of Israel and Turkey. His research appeared in Journal of International Relations and Development, International Studies Perspectives, Political Psychology, Perceptions, and Turkish Studies. 

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Middle East Studies at Hamline University (St. Paul, MN, USA).  She received her Ph.D. from Syracuse University and also holds a degree in Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute.  In addition to her book that examines Turkish foreign policymaking in the 1990s, Ozkececi-Taner’s publications have appeared in journals including Political Psychology, Journal of International Relations and Development, Contemporary Security Policy, Foreign Policy Analysis, Mediterranean Politics, and Turkish Politics, as well as in books, most recently Political Psychology of Turkish Political Behaviour.

Bernd Hayo and Florian Neumeier – Political Leaders’ Socioeconomic Background and Public Budget Deficits

This is a guest post by Bernd Hayo and Florian Neumeier from Philipps-University Marburg, Germany. It is based on their forthcoming paper in Economics and Politics

Within the last decade, many industrial countries have experienced three crises: a financial crisis, an economic crisis in the form of a major recession, and a sovereign debt crisis. Some observers even believe that the still ongoing sovereign debt crisis in Europe endangers the survival of the euro area and seriously undermines European integration. Although financial and economic crises contributed to the poor state of public finances, in many countries, public finances were stretched to the breaking point even before the outbreak of the crisis. Thus, they were unable to bail out financial institutions and stabilise the business cycle without significantly raising investors’ concern over the possibility of substantial default risk.

Although many major economic reforms appear to be unthinkable without the commitment of political leaders and, consequently, are strongly associated with their names (consider, for instance, US President Roosevelt’s New Deal as well as the supply-side oriented economic policies initiated by US President Reagan referred to as Reagonomics or, more recently, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s macroeoconomic experiment, often called Abenomics), the economics literature has rather neglected the role of heads of governments for countries’ economic and fiscal performances. In an article recently published in Economics & Politics, we aim at shedding some light on this issue. Utilising data on 21 OECD countries over the period 1980‒2008, we empirically investigate whether there is a systematic link between the socioeconomic backgrounds of those countries’ presidents and prime ministers and their fiscal policy stance. Our main interest lies in the association between political leaders’ socioeconomic status before taking up politics–that is, their relative standing in society as indicated by the level of formal education, income, and social capital–and the fiscal deficits during their incumbencies.

Our findings reveal that heads of governments from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to run larger budget deficits than leaders who were affiliated with the upper class before their political career. This difference appears to be of notable size: the tenures of lower-status leaders are associated with a deficit-to-GDP ratio which is roughly 1.6 percentage points higher than that of high-status leaders. Over time, this effect increases to almost 12 percentage points. Moreover, we find that in political systems characterised by stronger constraints on policy-makers in the form of checks and balances or government fractionalisation, the impact of political leaders’ socioeconomic status on fiscal deficit declines. However, it continues to be statistically significant and economically relevant.

The argument we offer to explain the relationship between political leaders’ socioeconomic background and fiscal deficit builds on a long tradition of social science research. According to sociology, a person’s thinking and acting is steered by a system of lasting, transposable dispositions, also called habitus. These dispositions are a reflection of the social experiences a person gathers and the life conditions she is exposed to and become manifest in particular patterns of appraisal and practice. In status-conscious societies, status discrepancies serve as the foundation for social categorisation, as they provide an effective tool for labelling people. Depending on their status, individuals are assigned to classes (e.g., the upper class or lower class), which inevitably affects their life conditions and self-images—i.e., people usually perceive themselves to be of a particular rank and thereby identify with a specific social class. Due to that, people of similar status meet similar fates and gather similar experiences, which is why these dispositions happen to be homogenous for members of the same social class, constituting a class habitus.

Based on this reasoning, we hypothesise that the policy stance of heads of government reflects the habitus of the social class in which they were socialised. Our empirical evidence suggests that low-status individuals are more inclined to support public debt incurrence. There are two explanations for this state of affairs. First, attitudes toward public indebtedness depend on the individual’s personal economic situation: people are less reluctant to live at the expense of future generations if they are relatively worse off. Second, the propensity toward public debt incurrence is likely affected by persons’ degree of future orientation, as running a public deficit can also serve as a way to enjoy welfare gains from public goods and services and postpone the burden associated with rising tax rates or cuts in government spending for the future. Status, in turn, is found to be inversely related to a person’s orientation toward the future as well as the willingness to delay gratification.

Can we trust these findings? In a related study (Hayo and Neumeier, 2014), we employ a similar theoretical and empirical framework but utilise observations on the German states (Länder) and their prime ministers. In contrast to the OECD countries, in this sample of states within a federation, there is a much greater degree of homogeneity across the various cross-sectional units.  But again, we find robust evidence for the influence of leader’s social status in line with the results reported for OECD countries above.

Finally, a political leader’s socioeconomic status may not only affect her propensity to rely on deficit financing. In Hayo and Neumeier (2012), we show that the status of heads of governments also exerts an influence on the size and composition of public spending. Our findings suggest that political leaders who were socialised in the lower class conduct policies that support a levelling of status-related social inequalities. This implies increasing expenditure on budget components such as social security, education, and health care, which are prominent dimensions of social deprivation. This result is consistent with the notion that individual behaviour exhibits a social rivalry motive, implying that members of the upper class seek distinction from low ranks in order to enhance and secure their privileged and prestigious position, whereas people of low status strive for status advancement and a levelling of status-related differences between classes.

References:

Hayo, B. and Neumeier, F. (2012), Leaders’ Impact on Public Spending Priorities: The Case of the German Laender, Kyklos 65, 480‒511.

Hayo, B. and Neumeier, F. (2014), Political Leaders’ Socioeconomic Background and Fiscal Performance in Germany, European Journal of Political Economy 34, 184‒205.

Hayo, B. and Neumeier, F., Political Leaders’ Socioeconomic Background and Public Budget Deficits: Evidence from OECD Countries, forthcoming in: Economics & Politics.