Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault – The influence of the presidential system on the character of Latin American democracy

This is a guest post by Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault. It is based on their recent book, Presidents and Democracy in Latin America, London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

The aim of this book is to study the effect of the presidential form of government on democracy in Latin America. The adoption of the presidential system, specifically the personality type of those who have occupied the presidential office, the leadership style of those presidents, and the type of government they have led, helps to explain the consolidation of democracy there.

In this study, six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) were chosen. They were chosen because they have successfully completed the process of democratic consolidation. Within each of the six countries, two presidents were chosen, reflecting broad trends in the political and electoral life of these countries. The goal was to select presidents belonging to one of the key political ‘families’ of the country, grouped under the banner of a political party, or who were representative of two particular approaches to the same problem in the same political family. These presidents were in office in the 1990s or the first decade of the 21st century. Some were liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing populists, socialists or social democrats, leaders of a political party or ‘outsiders,’ members of parliament or technocrats. They are:

  • Carlos Menem (July 1989-December 1999) and Nestor Kirchner (May 2003-December 2007) for Argentina.
  • Fernando Henrique Cardoso (January 1995-December 2002) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (January 2003-December 2010) for Brazil.
  • Patricio Aylwin (March 1990-March 1994) and Ricardo Lagos (March 2000-March 2006) for Chile.
  • Cesar Gaviria (September 1994-September 2004) and Alvaro Uribe (August 2002-August 2010) for Colombia.
  • Ernesto Zedillo (December 1994-November 2000) and Felipe Calderon (December 2006-December 2012) for Mexico.
  • Alan García (July 1985-July 1990 and July 2006 to July 2011) and Alberto Fujimori (July 1990-November 2000) for Peru.

In practice, these presidents were all center-right or center-left leaders. They were not members of the military, dictators, or revolutionaries. Right-wing populist presidents (Menem, Fujimori and Uribe) were chosen based on the idea that populists can be either on the right or on the left. However, García and Kirchner were chosen as moderate populists, claiming to be an Aprist and a Peronist respectively; both represent different periods. These choices make it possible to analyze processes in a consolidated democracy, but not in military regimes or in dominant party systems.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, these Latin American countries had a long period of instability. Argentina wavered between three types of political regimes: military dictatorship, a populist-corporatist regime, and restrictive democracy. From 1930 to the reestablishment of liberal democracy in 1983, there were six major military coups (1930, 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976). There were eighteen presidents, and all those elected were overthrown except one, Peron, who died less than a year after his election. Governments in Peru have been more unstable than in any other South American country. Between 1945 and 1992, Peru’s government was civilian and constitutional almost 60 percent of the time, and a military regime 40 percent of the time. There were nearly two decades of military rule in Brazil and Chile. A military coup overthrew President Goulart in 1964 and began the longest period of authoritarian rule in Brazil’s history. With the collapse of democracy in September 1973, Chile was abruptly transformed from an open and participatory political system into a repressive and authoritarian one. General Pinochet was selected as the junta’s president by virtue of his position as leader of the oldest military branch. Unlike many of its continental neighbors, Colombia has avoided military rule, but there was intense violence between members of the two major parties in the late 1940s and 1950s, known as « la violenca » (the violence). A coalition government resulted from party negotiations. From 1958 to 1974, all governments in Colombia consisted of a bipartisan coalition. The main factors commonly associated with good prospects for democracy have long persisted in Mexico without producing full democracy.

Presidential regimes in Latin America are now a success, despite the pessimistic comments directed at this form of government. There are indeed manifest reasons why the Latin American presidential government should be considered a success. Latin American countries have overcome the fundamental dangers to which they were exposed. Although difficulties continue in a number of countries, presidential government in the region is no longer interrupted as it so frequently was in the past. Democratic development also mean that the number of countries regularly holding free and fair elections has increased. Executive governments are often elected by voters mobilized by clientelistic ties or by a candidate’s personality, rather than programmatic, appeal, all in the context of weak parties that are, moreover, rejected by citizens. The presidential elections of Zedillo in 1994 and Calderon in 2006 were intricate and controversial. Both involved critical moments of acute social tension and political instability that produced distinctive results.

Latin American governments have been influenced by the adoption of the presidential system. They set up institutions drawn largely from the US constitutional model. But Latin American presidents represent another type of executive. In the United States, there is a president, but there is no government. Latin America has a large number of presidential regimes characterised by a high degree of consistency and similarity. They constitute a type of intermediary regime, comprising many elements of presidential regimes, but with some of the features of parliamentary systems with coalition governments so as to ensure a majority in congress. For almost twenty years, Brazil has been considered an extraordinary case of « coalition presidentialism ». This explains why the president’s leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The Brazilian party system is highly fragmented. Dealing with loosely disciplined parties is thus a major problem for presidents because it makes the formation of stable congressional majorities much harder to achieve due to the excessive number of party factions. But there were also the broad multi-party coalition governments seen in Chile. Presidents of these countries have demonstrated leadership skills, arising from a good political performance and cohesive majority coalitions that support them: Aylwin and Lagos in Chile, Cardoso in Brazil. It is impossible to explain the stability of these coalitions without referring to the various mechanisms of coalition management and to presidential leadership. Most importantly, these three presidents facilitated the transition to democracy following the failure of authoritarian regimes in Chile and Brazil. They did not have the same authority as Lula, but they showed great skills of conciliation and moderation during the difficult transition period, namely the restoration and the consolidation of the democratic regime in Chile and Brazil.

This explains why the presidential leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The key feature of the popular election of the president has been the inherent tendency of Latin American countries to emphasize the role of personalities in political life. Latin American political regimes have been markedly affected by patronage and clientelism; with the extension of the right to vote, elections were deeply influenced by these practices. The impact of personalities on the political life of Latin American countries has continued to this day, but it is less substantial. There is a decline in the extent to which Latin American presidentialism is personalized compared to the extent it had been previously. In the past personalization undoubtedly rendered presidential rule more chaotic and less rule-based. The fact that, on the whole, presidencies have tended to follow previously adopted rules during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first century has surely resulted in the personalization of presidents being been less marked than in the past. Whereas presidents often enjoy high levels of popularity, these levels vary from president to president as well as over time in the case of each president. One president exhibited exceptional leadership boosted by his personal dominance: Lula. His performance was strengthened by the fact that he had an interesting experience as founder and president of the Workers’ Party. He is often regarded as one of the most popular politicians in the history of Brazil, boasting approval ratings over 80 percent and, at the time of his mandate, one of the most popular in the world.

A new type of personalised populism emerged with the appearance of formulas promoting demobilization and anti-political behavior. Fujimori in Peru, Menem in Argentina, and Uribe in Colombia. These three presidents have adopted a more or less authoritarian manner, being hostile to or even repressing the opposition. They used exceptional means, such as a state of emergency or government by decree, to implement their economic and social policies, as well as the fight against armed rebellions and drug trafficking. However, these exceptional means did not enable them to achieve the expected results. Their presidency was characterized by an authoritarianism and corruption. The populism of Carlos S. Menem in Argentina was strengthened by the political machine of the historic Justicialita Party. Carlos Menem governed within the framework of « peronism » and enjoyed remarkable popular support. Menem’s economic policy involved profound structural reforms, including the privatisation of public enterprises, economic deregulation and the opening up of the economy to foreign trade and investment. This policy created the conditions for monetary stability and remained in force after Menem left office in 1999 and until the crisis of December 2001. However, the policies of the Menem era led to a deepening of social inequality and a rise in unemployment. However he was considered a true peronist. He was the main player in the political regime, with a negative view of parliament and the judiciary. Menem’s leadership has been labelled neopopulist and delegative due to the continuous use of unilateral measures and emergency legislation. It was of a different nature to the populism of Fujimori in Peru. Fujimori sought to distance his government from politics, disdaining the social and/or political mobilization that could have been mounted through some movement or party. Fujimori outlined a strategy in which criticism of the traditional parties was a part of his discourse. He decided to confront the political class instead of building bridges with it. Instead, he expressly renounced such mobilizations, and depoliticized all the other political bodies. Uribe presented himself as the saviour of a Colombia that seemed to be on the brink of destruction. He portrayed himself as a messiah who would redeem Colombia of all its evils and built a strategy around certain core components. He adopted a radical discourse against armed groups and proposed resolving the internal conflict through war and the subjugation of guerrillas. He withdrew from the Liberal Party, to which he had belonged throughout his political life. He spoke out against the parties and the political class despite having belonged to both and adhering to their norms and rules throughout his political career.

Some presidents demonstrated weaker leadership skills (Kirchner in Argentine, Gaviria in Colombia, Zedillo and Calderon in Mexico). They came to power without holding important positions in the governments headed by their predecessors. They have become second-rate candidates, indirectly because of events that have upset or disrupted the appointment of the first office holder. They have never been able to exercise strong authority, muddling through in the face of significant obstacles and divisions.

The fact that the presidential system had become ‘established’ in Latin America by the second half of the 20th century does not mean that these countries have not suffered serious problems. In the 1990s, democracy spread across the region, even if Colombia, Brazil and Mexico experienced marked political violence, the state being unable to maintain order and public security. What is clear is that, in the context of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil in particular, one very serious problem was identified: violence, and this problem affected the regular development of the presidential system in these three countries. The amount of violence that has affected Colombia has been huge, to the extent that it is surprising that the regular conduct of the electoral process has not been prevented from taking place. The policies of the two Colombian presidents, Gaviria and Uribe, were fundamentally different, the first having pursued the ‘war effort’ against the rebels, whereas the second attempted (unsuccessfully) to find a peaceful solution: his successor was able to make substantial progress in that direction, however. In Colombia it has thus been possible, rather surprisingly, to maintain the main electoral rules of the liberal democratic process, although, at least in a substantial part of the country, confrontation has taken in effect the form of a civil war.

In recent decades, presidential elections have taken place regularly in Latin America. Certainly, some presidents have been more popular than others. Some have been unable to conclude their terms. Others have gradually learned to adjust to the particularities of the institutional system. Overall, though, the presidential form of government has gradually begun to function smoothly. The fact that presidents have tended to follow democratic rules has resulted from the presence of patterns of parliamentary presidentialism. In spite of serious problems (political violence, corruption), the emergence of these tools (coalitional presidentialism, the (de-) institutionalization of party systems, the internal organization of the executive branch) must be seen as having constituted the key institutional development of democracy in Latin America.

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