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

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