Miguel Carreras – The Rise of Political Newcomers in Presidential Systems

This is a guest post by Miguel Carreras at UC, Riverside. It is based on a forthcoming article in European Journal of Political Research

In the wake of the euphoria generated by the Third Wave of democratization during the 1980s, a group of scholars studying Latin America were more pessimistic about the prospects for democratic consolidation of the countries in the region. These scholars argued that there were a series of “perils of presidentialism” that created obstacles for the healthy functioning of democratic regimes in countries with presidential systems. Among the main perils of presidentialism, these scholars mentioned the dual democratic legitimacy, the temporal rigidity of presidentialism, the winner take all logic of presidential elections, and the principle of non-reelection (Lijphart, 1992; Linz, 1990, 1994). Since the early 1990s, several scholars of political institutions and Latin American politics tested most of these claims. The current consensus is that these perils of presidentialism were greatly exaggerated in these early studies (Carreras, 2012). However, the critics of presidentialism also claimed that the rise of political newcomers is a peril associated with presidential systems. This issue has been neglected until recently, and the main implication –i.e. newcomers are more likely to come to power in presidential systems– has never been tested empirically.

In a forthcoming article in the European Journal of Political Research (Carreras, fortcoming), I take on that task and I analyze whether the election of political newcomers is more likely in presidential systems. In my work, I define political newcomers in national executive elections as “candidates who lack substantial political experience in the legislative or the executive branches of government.” As for the operationalization, heads of government are considered as “political newcomers” when they had at most three years of political experience before reaching office –combining executive and legislative experience.[1] Using this definition and operationalization, I have identified 73 political newcomers elected (or selected) as heads of government following national elections around the world in the period 1945-2015. The sample includes 870 democratic national elections around the world. In other words, more than 8% of national elections in democratic countries have led to the election of a political newcomer as head of government.[2]

I assessed the impact of presidentialism on the success of political newcomers in national elections by estimating a series of random effects logistic regressions (this estimator is appropriate because the dependent variable is binary –1 if the elected head of government is a newcomer, 0 otherwise–). I also controlled for several other factors that might be related with the rise of political newcomers according to previous research (party system stability, economic performance, age of democracy, quality of democracy, and compulsory voting). The results of the main empirical model in the paper are presented below.

The empirical analysis demonstrates that Linz and the other critics of presidentialism were right about this particular claim. The variable “presidentialism” is positive and statistically significant in the statistical analysis, and this result is robust under different specifications and different operationalizations of the dependent variable. It appears that the personalized nature of presidential elections indeed facilitates the rise of politically inexperienced outsiders. But how exactly can presidentialism lead to the rise of political newcomers? I postulate that there are three causal mechanisms that may explain the connection between presidentialism and the electoral success of political newcomers. First, the organizational efforts that are necessary for leaders to become contenders for the top executive position differ significantly in presidential and parliamentary democracies. Political newcomers need to create a formidable party organization and have to recruit viable legislative candidates in many districts in order to have a chance to become prime ministers. Politically inexperienced candidates in presidential elections do not face equally insurmountable obstacles. Presidential elections are much more personalized, and political newcomers may win with very little support in the legislature (and without the support of any traditional party), especially in moments of deep economic and sociopolitical crisis that create a loss of confidence in the political establishment.

The second, and related, factor is the impossibility of popular inexperienced candidates to transmit their charisma or popularity. The deep popular dissatisfaction with the political establishment tends to be embodied by one or a few political leaders. Legislative candidates may ride on the coattails of very popular political newcomers irrespective of the type of political system, but the probability of them winning is always lower than the probability the charismatic candidate has of obtaining an electoral victory. Thus, in parliamentary systems the probability of an allied legislator winning a seat is always lower than the probability of the political newcomer winning a seat. In presidential systems, a charismatic neophyte candidate may become the president even if the party represented by the newcomer obtains poor results in legislative elections.

The third factor is the possibility to split the ticket in presidential elections. In presidential systems, voters normally have the possibility to vote for a legislative candidate of one party and for the presidential candidate of another party. Sometimes, this leads to a high discrepancy between the votes received by a party in concurrent legislative and presidential elections (Ames, Baker, & Renno, 2009; Helmke, 2009). The possibility to split the vote facilitates the election of a political newcomer in presidential systems, because it allows ambitious politically inexperienced public figures to run in presidential elections with a new party or a new electoral movement. These candidates may win, even if they are not associated with a single legislative candidate.


[1] The empirical results do not change if we adopt a more restrictive operationalization of “political newcomer.”

[2] The list of newcomer presidents and prime ministers  in the period 1945-2015 is  available in the supplementary information in the EJPR website: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/1475-6765.12181/suppinfo


Ames, B., Baker, A., & Renno, L. R. (2009). Split-ticket voting as the rule: Voters and permanent divided government in Brazil. Electoral Studies, 28(1), 8-20.

Carreras, M. (2012). The Evolution of the Study of Executive-Legislative Relations in Latin America: Or How Theory Slowly Catches Up with Reality. Revista Ibero-Americana de Estudos Legislativos(2), 20-26.

Carreras, M. (fortcoming). Institutions, governmental performance and the rise of political newcomers. European Journal of Political Research.

Helmke, G. (2009). Ticket splitting as electoral insurance: The Mexico 2000 elections. Electoral Studies, 28(1), 70-78.

Lijphart, A. (1992). Introduction Parliamentary versus Presidential Government. New York: Oxford University Press.

Linz, J. J. (1990). The Perils of Presidentialism. Journal of Democracy, 1(1), 51-69.

Linz, J. J. (1994). Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference? In J. J. Linz & A. Valenzuela (Eds.), The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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