Christopher A. Martínez – Why political institutions matter for presidential survival

This is a guest post by Christopher A. Martínez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science, Temuco Catholic University, Chile

There is no crisis here, nor problems” Fernando de la Rúa (resigned, December 2001)
I’ll continue to govern” Lucio Gutiérrez (dismissed by Congress, April 2005 )

Since 1979, thirteen South American chief executives have been unable to complete their constitutional terms. These failed presidencies occur when a popularly elected president is forced to leave office early, though the ouster is not followed by a democratic breakdown. Some presidents have been impeached (e.g., Collor and Rousseff in Brazil, Pérez in Venezuela, Cubas and Lugo in Paraguay); others could not withstand massive and widespread street protests (e.g., Alfonsín and De la Rúa in Argentina, Siles Zuazo and Sánchez in Bolivia, and Fujimori in Peru); while other leaders were unseated via unorthodox mechanisms (e.g., Bucaram, Mahuad, and Gutiérrez in Ecuador). Being forced to leave office early represents a dramatic deviation from a central goal of all political leaders, which is to maintain power. Thus, failing to fulfil a presidential term should be an exceptional political event in a presidential democracy.

I used survival analysis to quantitatively study 65 South American presidencies between 1979 and 2012. My results show that the most important forces driving presidential survival are institutional ones: legislative support for the president, and a country’s democratic tradition. Interestingly, inflation, economic recessions, and scandals have no significant impact on presidential survival, whereas violent social mobilisations exhibit a rather weak effect.

Some presidents are “safer” than others: Why a country’s democratic tradition matters

Previous studies have not established whether democracy had any impact, be it positive or negative, on the occurrence of presidential failures. Rather than focusing on current levels of democracy, in my research I used a new measure of democracy which represents a country’s past records with democratic and authoritarian politics: democratic tradition. Figure 1 illustrates how different a country’s current level of democracy (Polity2) and democratic tradition truly are. For instance, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay all had low levels of democracy in 1980. Nevertheless, only Chile and Uruguay stand out for their accumulated experience with democracy.

When considering democracy’s effects over extended periods of time, my findings show that the larger the democratic tradition of a country, the more likely the president will “survive.” That is to say, countries with a well-established democratic track provide a “safer,” less threatening environment for presidential survival. Unlike countries with poor democratic experiences, in these type of polities, political actors—presidents, legislators, parties, among others—are discouraged from pursuing questionable courses of action and are more likely to settle political disagreements through negotiation and accommodation, all of which reduces the risk of early government termination.

Figure 1: Democratic Stock and Polity2 Score of Democracy, 1900-2012

Legislative support is central to “survive” in office

In theory, chief executives in presidential systems do not require a legislative majority to stay in office; however, presidents need legislators’ support more than they may think. Passing relevant legislation is a central task for most executives, but hanging on to power is unquestionably a far more important goal for any president. If presidents are to complete their terms in office, they must ensure the backing of a disciplined contingent of members of congress. This “legislative shield” (Pérez-Liñán 2007) would especially come in handy during dire economic circumstances and intense social mobilisations, as loyal legislators may undermine the opposition’s attacks and criticism against the executive. As in previous studies, my research maintains legislative support for the president as the most consistent and strongest predictor of presidential survival in South America.

What do political scandals do?

Results have been mixed about the relationship between political scandals and failed presidencies. Unlike Hochstetler (2006) and Pérez-Liñán (2007), my findings show that corruption scandals do not reduce presidential survival in South America. Presidents’ involvement in scandals may be frowned upon and weaken their approval ratings, yet they do not directly or necessarily force them to step down. True, some presidents have been deposed because of corruption accusations (for example, Collor in Brazil and Pérez in Venezuela). Nevertheless, political scandals are not exceptional in the region, and many of them have not triggered presidential interruptions (e.g., Menem in Argentina, Samper in Colombia, among others). What scandals can do, especially in cases of fragile president-party relations, is to undermine the ruling coalition and/or reduce the president’s chances to form a new one. Such an instance is what I argue occurred with Fernando De la Rúa’s bribery scandal in Argentina (Martínez 2017) and Lucio Gutiérrez’s alleged links with a drug trafficker in Ecuador (Martínez forthcoming).

Social mobilisations

Though it may come as a surprise, my results show that street protests have only a weak—if any—effect on presidential survival. This is true of both general strikes and social mobilisations aimed at the executive. On the other hand, violent demonstrations such as riots do increase the risk of early presidential removals; nonetheless, their impact is significantly weakened when one analyses a president’s legislative support. That is to say, when it comes to “surviving” in office, the role of congress outweighs any type of social mobilisation, even the bloody ones. An alternative explanation for the weaker-than-expected effects of public demonstrations is that it is their intensity, rather than their simple occurrence, that matters.

Final remarks

Even though a president’s popularity may be negatively affected by economic recessions, street protests, and political scandals, their “survival” in office largely hinges upon legislative support and democratic tradition. The role of congress is likened to the proverbial two-edged sword: it may either shield the president or turn against him/her. Presidents, thus, ought to cultivate smooth relations with their ruling partners should they indeed want to hold onto office. Moreover, chief executives ruling over countries with a weak democratic tradition may have fewer chances to “survive” to begin with, as most political actors in those countries may be more accustomed to bend the rules of the game, which would heighten the risk of presidential failures.

Christopher A. Martínez holds a PhD in Political Science from Loyola University Chicago. He is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science, Temuco Catholic University, Chile. His current research interests include the executive branch, government survival, institutional performance and democratic consolidation in Latin America. He can be reached at christopher.martinez@fulbrightmail.org and @martineznourdin.

One thought on “Christopher A. Martínez – Why political institutions matter for presidential survival

  1. Pingback: El Profesor Martínez Comparte su Investigación en Presidential Power | SOCCIPOL - Departamento de Sociología y Ciencia Política

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