Scholars of Latin American political institutions are fascinated with presidents. The wide array of legislative and appointment powers that presidents enjoy has been seen as a distinctive feature of presidentialism in this region. However, researchers have paid less attention to the organizational setting in which presidential actions are shaped.
In this post, I discuss how the focus on the Presidential Office – the organization formed by agencies directly subordinate to presidential authority and in charge of supporting presidential leadership – can help us grasp another source of variation among presidential systems.
In most Latin American countries, different from the US, Executive power is institutionally robust, but the strength of partisan support, as well as the legislative and administrative powers of presidents varies widely. Whether these differences stimulate presidents to invest time and resources in the Presidential Office in order to expand their powers and leadership is a nontrivial question: to what extent is a complex and professional presidential office necessary to ensure the coordination capacity of an already powerful president?
To answer this question, I understand that a critical dimension is the type of government and its impact on the presidential office. Single-party or coalition cabinets generate different problems of coordination within the government. I argue that under robust Executive power, the strengthening of the presidency is a byproduct of the chief executive’s strategies for overcoming the problems of coordinating a multiparty cabinet. Because the intensity of these problems varies across coalitions and throughout the presidential mandate, ebbs and flows of changes within the presidential office are not rare events. Thus, the strengthening of the Presidency is contingent on the governing coalition profile and the coordination problems faced by the president.
For several scholars, coalitional presidentialism is a source of political stability in Latin America, particularly where legislative-executive powers are relatively balanced and a game of inter-branch cooperation is feasible. According to most studies, the institutional power of the president favors the formation of a political majority and ensures several means for coordinating it. However, little is known about the problems of coordination that presidents face within the multy-party cabinet and how the Presidential Office supports the president to overcome these problems.
The experience of Brazilian coalitional presidentialism sheds light on this point. Multiparty coalitions are a common aspect of building cabinets in Brazil (Figueiredo & Limongi, 1999, 2009; Amorim Neto & Santos, 2002; Santos, 2003). Recently, variations in coalition management have attracted the attention of scholars (Amorim Neto 2002, 2003; Inacio, 2006, 2009; Raile et al, 2010; Chaisty et al, 2012). In this context, the presidential office has gained centrality, encouraging analysis of the evolution of this institution and the dynamics of coalition governments (Inacio, 2009, 2011; Batista Silva, 2011; Rennó& Gaylord, 2011; Rennó, 2010).
The Brazilian presidency is known for its powerful chief executive. However, the extent of presidential powers is greater, considering the prerogatives of presidents to redesign, centralize and politicize the presidential organization. Comprising a set of agencies and advisory offices directly subordinated to the president, the presidential office is regulated by the general laws regarding the structure of the executive branch. Since presidents have the exclusive right of initiative in this area, they can exert strong control over legislative proposals and dictate the timing of these reforms (Figueiredo & Limongi, 1999). By implementing reforms through provisional measures, the president can change the status quo and impose higher costs for any legislative attempts to reverse it.
Remarkable changes have occurred in the internal structure of the presidency in Brazil throughout the post-democratization period, when stable coalitions emerged after a very chaotic phase (1986-1992). An organization, initially in charge of providing personal assistance to the president, became an institutionally complex and specialized structure. From 1995-2010, the structure of the presidency expanded the number of agencies from nine to twenty and the presidential staff increased from 5,000 to 15,000 employees. This expansion was not only structural; it also deepened the degree of specialization and functional differentiation of these agencies. Throughout this process, coordinating units have assumed a central role in the governing process; policy units and an advisory system increasingly support presidential decisions in priority areas. However, this process shows an oscillating dynamic due to the different coordinating problems faced by Brazilian presidents.
The governments of presidents Cardoso and Lula have built oversized coalitions, but they varied considerably. The more compact and ideologically homogeneous coalition formed by Cardoso led to less intense conflict among partners, with the government-opposition cleavage being more relevant. Lula, on the other hand, built a fragmented and ideologically heterogeneous coalition and internal conflicts and cabinet reshuffles were more frequent, particularly during his first term.
Both presidents resorted to a high degree of partisanship in the portfolio, exceeding 60% of the ministries, as a strategy to foster disciplined coalitions. Both are known for their legislative successes and capacities to lead costly reforms and innovations. However, this result cannot be attributed solely to the personal style or broad-base of the coalitions, but also to the roles that the presidential office assumed in this process. It is remarkable that, under costly coalitons, presidents expanded and strengthened the Presidential Office in order to keep tabs on partners. This movement took place through policitization and redesign of this strucuture.
Cardoso and Lula maintained the Presidential Office as a single-party organization commanding a multi-party cabinet, but the politicization of the office was considerably different under the two men. Under Cardoso’s coalition, politicization was a strategy for the ministries, not the presidency. Technicians and a few members of the president’s party held positions at the top of the executive branch. The modest redesign of the agencies supporting the president addressed the informational gaps in presidential advisory system. A different dynamic existed in President Lula’s administration because politicization reached similar levels in both the ministries and the presidency (80% of positions). The expansion of the presidential agencies and politicization were interrelated moves of Lula’s administration. The creation of new units subordinated to the presidency, which grew from 10 to 20 positions, was accompanied by the recruitment of members affiliated with the president´s party. Thus, while the presidential office opened new positions, the president did not share them with all of the parties in his fragmented coalition.
A multiparty coalition reshapes the conditions for presidential leadership and presidents have learned how to handle it. Thus, I think we have to pay more attention to strengthening of the Presidency and whether it has any influence on the performance of presidential system. It is worth considering whether and to what extent the changes in presidential organization are a vector for cross-country and cross-regional differences in presidentialism.
 The Brazilian president has a monopoly on the introduction of legislation concerning public administration, taxation and budget, besides the constitutional right to request urgency procedures on a bill and the power to issue provisional measures.
Magna Inácio is an associate professor at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG). Her research interests include coalition governments, the institutional presidency, and legislative parties. Currently, her research is concerned with the institutional development of the Presidency in Brazil and Latin American. She has published co-edited books: Legislativo Brasileiro em Perspectiva Comparada (with Lúcio Rennó). (Ed. UFMG); Elites Parlamentares na America Latina. (Argvmentvm Ed, 2009) and chapters in “Algo más que Presidentes. El papel del Poder Legislativo en América Latina”. (co-edited by Manoel Alcantara Saez e Mercedes Garcia; Fundación Manuel Gimenez Abad 2011); O Congresso por Ele Mesmo. (edited by Timothy Powers e Cesar Zucco; Ed. UFMG 2011). She has published in journals such as America Latina Hoy and Jounal of Politics in Latin America. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.