Christopher A. Martínez – Democratic tradition and Lucio Gutiérrez’s ‘survival’ in office

This is a guest post by Christopher A. Martínez from Temuco Catholic University

In a previous post, I briefly described the main findings of a quantitative analysis that showed a significant (and consistent) effect of a country’s democratic tradition on presidential survival (Martínez 2017a). However, that study does not delve into how both variables are theoretically or empirically connected. I tackle this issue by analysing how Ecuador’s democratic tradition, along with other determinants of presidential survival, affected the chances of former President Lucio Gutiérrez staying in office (Martínez 2017b).

Ecuador has been historically known for its feeble democratic institutionalisation, undisciplined parties and a highly volatile party system. Zamosc (2007: 8) states that during the 1990s, even after 10 years of civilian government, Ecuadorean political actors remained weakly committed to abiding by democratic rules and that the electorate still lacked a well-developed ‘political culture.’ Bearing this in mind, I use the case of Gutiérrez to closely study how democratic tradition might have contributed to his political demise.

Democratic tradition: radicalism, normative preferences for democratic institutions and institutional equilibria

I argue that a country’s democratic tradition may have important effects on how political actors behave. Countries with stronger, longer democratic experiences are less likely to witness chief executives ousted from power. I posit that a country’s democratic tradition is a distant force, one that unfolds through three more proximate causes: level of radicalism, normative preferences for democratic institutions, and institutional equilibria (see Table I).

First, radicalism is observable when actors pursue political goals that dramatically deviate from the status quo. When these radical objectives cannot be attained through institutional mechanisms, actors may use non-institutional or even violent methods to accomplish them. These actions naturally spawn political friction and polarisation among those who oppose, which may increase political instability (Pérez-Liñán and Polga-Hecimovich 2017). Second, actors’ behaviour may also be driven by the values and attitudes they hold toward democracy. Weak normative preferences for democratic institutions would make actors more inclined to break the rules of the game if they interfere with their goals (Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán 2013). Thus, it may come as no surprise if actors resort to non-institutional or even illegal means to unseat a standing president. Finally, it might also be the case that actors do not intend to pursue radical goals and even value democratic institutions but still decide to break the rules and seek dramatic political changes. This may occur when negative institutional equilibria are in place in which ‘cheating’ is the equilibrium strategy (Greif and Kingston 2011; Calvert 1995), an arrangement that does not favour presidential survival.

Table I. Democratic tradition and its three proximate causes

I hypothesise that countries with shorter democratic traditions are more likely to witness political actors attempting to achieve rapid and dramatic changes to the status quo, displaying scant regard for democratic rules, and being prone to ‘cheat’ when other actors do so. These conditions tend to produce highly polarised and unstable scenarios which may pose insurmountable obstacles for presidents attempting to hold on to power.

The Gutiérrez case:

Following the steps of Abdalá Bucaram (August 1996 – February 1997) and Jamil Mahuad (Agustu 1998 – January 2000), Lucio Gutiérrez became the third consecutive elected Ecuadorian president to be unseated before completing his constitutional term. Still, the failed presidency of Gutiérrez is a curious case since he was ousted amid a period of mild economic bonanza. Shortly after taking office, President Gutiérrez betrayed his campaign promises and turned to the right. Following the left-leaning indigenous Pachakutik party’s walkout from the ruling coalition, Gutiérrez—with few parties willing to support him and after facing an ill-fated impeachment attempt—packed the Supreme Court with friendly judges so as to allow former President Abdalá Bucaram to return from exile as part of a deal struck with Bucaram’s party. In the following months, social discontent, which had been building up since Gutiérrez packed the Supreme Court in December 2004, led to widespread protests after Bucaram finally arrived in Ecuador in April 2005. Demonstrators took over the streets of Quito and broke into Congress, beleaguering the president who found himself politically isolated and struggling to hold on to power. After a couple of weeks of strong social mobilisations and lacking support from the military, the legislative opposition seized the opportunity and dismissed Gutiérrez after declaring his abandonment of office and appointed his vice-president in his place.

Ecuador’s democratic tradition and Gutiérrez’s ‘failure’:

Before and during the presidential crisis, Ecuador’s main political players exhibited low normative preferences for democratic rules. For instance, the temporary withdrawal of charges against Bucaram in exchange for political support and how Gutiérrez was irregularly voted out are clear examples of actors considering their goals to be far more important than the mechanisms to achieve them. Similarly, Gutiérrez blatantly intervening the Supreme Court in December 2004 represented a serious threat to the system of checks and balances, another sign of weak attitudes toward democracy and its institutions.

Still, a question worth asking is what would have happened if Gutiérrez had not packed the Supreme Court. He would have probably been out of office months earlier than he actually was. This means that ‘intervening’ in the Supreme Court was a very rational decision for the president and his political ‘survival.’ Analogously, had protestors not taken to the streets and broken into Congress, Gutiérrez would have stayed in office longer. Both moves cannot be considered fully democratic in the sense that they bypassed institutional mechanisms, at the very least, but they can still be regarded as rational.

Unreliable parties, erosion of legislative coalition and legislative shield

In addition to the effects of democratic tradition, Gutiérrez’s failure was also influenced by Ecuador’s undisciplined political parties. A remarkable sign of this was that apart from Gutiérrez’s own party, Partido Sociedad Patriótica (PSP), all of the largest parties were members of both the president’s coalition and the opposition at different moments during his administration.

Given that democratic tradition gradually changes over time, and undisciplined political parties are not new in Ecuador, why did presidential failures only occur after 1996? Mejía-Acosta and Polga-Hecimovich (2011) argue that before that time, presidents resorted to gastos reservados (discretionary budget allocations) which helped oil executive-opposition relations that reduced the likelihood of presidential failures. Nevertheless, a constitutional reform in 1996 took away the gastos reservados from the president; thus, negotiations between the ruling coalition and the opposition became increasingly difficult.

Final comments

The ouster of Lucio Gutiérrez was chiefly driven by institutional and political factors. Ecuador’s notoriously undisciplined parties, lack of incentives for executive-legislative collaboration and weak democratic tradition posed a challenging scenario for the president. Specifically, the behaviour of parties, protestors and Gutiérrez himself was influenced by the existence of a negative institutional equilibrium which rewarded cheating rather than complying with rules and a frail intrinsic commitment with democratic institutions, all of which heightened the risk of presidential failure.

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.

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