Tag Archives: Democratization

Yonatan L. Morse – Presidential Power and Democratization by Elections in Africa

This is a post by contributor Yonatan L. Morse, based on his article ‘Presidential Power and Democratization by Elections in Africa’ that will be published in the journal Democratization

In traditional studies of democratization, elections are generally the end phase of a prolonged process of liberalization and political opening. However, in recent years political scientists have also entertained the idea that elections might actually be the starting point of a process of democratization. In foundational work on Africa by Staffan Lindberg, he contended that repeated consecutive elections could create self-reinforcing mechanisms that deepened democracy over time. This approach is intuitively appealing for an era in which elections are commonplace, yet many countries still fail to live up to democratic standards. And expectedly, this thesis has been subject to quite widespread replication, scrutiny, and criticism.

In new research, now published online by the journal Democratization, I engage with the democratization by elections thesis in Africa, and argue that repeated elections can induce some forms of democratic behavior but face real limitations when formal presidential powers are strong. This is because under certain conditions strong presidentialism reinforces incentives for elections to become opportunities for clientelistic exchange, rather than moments of self-expression. Powerful presidents that control legislative agendas, access to political appointments, and the purse strings, might lead certain actors to behave more democratically during elections, but not necessarily to develop more robust notions of citizenship. This holds true in Africa because levels of economic development and inequality reinforce the role of clientelism as a central way elites and citizens access their government.

A caveat is in order here first. If the democratization by elections thesis has been so heavily scrutinized (in Africa and elsewhere), what is there to add to the debate? Other studies have generated, at best, mixed results. For instance, in Latin America democracy was restored in the 1980s after periodic interludes of authoritarianism. Therefore, many of the indicators of democracy simply jumped back to their prior levels, and have in fact declined since in many countries. Most importantly, in many countries repeated elections seemed to reinforce rather than undermine authoritarianism. Referred to as electoral or competitive authoritarian regimes, in these cases repeated elections appear to offer incumbents the ability to reshuffle their coalitions, gather information about their levels of support, and generate international legitimacy. In one study of Africa, the authors found that democratization by elections could only truly be found in a handful of cases.

The problem with previous studies is that they often mischaracterize what the democratization by elections thesis is actually about. Lindberg makes a crucial distinction between the “process of democratization” and a “transition to democracy.” Regimes can show improvements in specific indicators of democracy, while not necessarily transitioning to a new regime. Indeed, autocratic regimes can exhibit more or less democratic behavior. For instance, when actors participate more, compete more effectively, or appear to accept the legitimacy of the election process, this is a sign of democratic progress. Specifically, for Lindberg this is evidence of how elections create self-fulfilling expectations. Elections might also lead to improvements in other realms of democratic life like the protection of civil liberties. This indicates some form of socialization by elections, whereby citizens learn from election experience to demand voice in other realms of life. Using this more limited definition of democratization yields quite different results from previous studies.

My contribution is therefore to stress which factors condition the impact of repeated elections on much more specific democratic outcomes. I gathered information on 679 African elections since 1990, and combined this information with data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) and Presidential Power (PRESPOW) datasets. These data offer new ways to explore both numerous democratic outcomes, and to compare and contrast the extent of formal presidential power across Africa. The V-DEM data includes measures of electoral participation, competition, and legitimacy. But, it also includes indexes of many non-electoral elements of democracy like the protection of civil and private liberties, civil society participation, and equal protection under the law. I controlled for numerous other factors like executive years in office, levels of economic growth and development, foreign aid, ethnic heterogeneity, religion, and historic experiences with democracy.

A key utility of this study is its use of formal measures of presidential power in Africa. In many studies of African politics the focus has often been on the various ways in which presidents violate constitutions and operate through parallel informal institutions. This approach is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, it is equally clear that African presidents routinely amend constitutions, which means that the formal powers of presidents are not trivial. Second, using formal measures of presidential powers limits the risk of endogeneity in a study. For example, if a president unconstitutionally repeals legislation, this is often coded as both a violation of the democratic process and stronger informal presidential power. It is difficult to know what factor is influencing what factor. By focusing on the formal attributes of presidents, this risk of conflation is mitigated.

The analysis shows that improvements in the election process do not depend on levels of presidential power. Using Lindberg’s criteria, with more experience African elections become more participatory, competitive, and legitimate. This validates the notion that elections reinforce actors’ expectations and conditions them to accede by the rules of the game if they want to get ahead. On the other hand, presidential power significantly conditions the impact of repeated election on civil and private liberties, civil society participation, and equal protection under the law. When presidents are formally strong, repeated and consecutive elections limit the ability of elections to socialize more participatory and democratic behavior. These results hold up to various statistical models, and even the inclusion of a measure of the unfairness of the election.

This corresponds with expectations regarding the intersection of presidential power and clientelism in Africa. When levels of access to a system of spoils define the political game, and when presidents control that access, elections become devoid of deeper civic meaning. Rather, actors decide to accept electoral processes because fighting the system keeps them excluded. These results do not reject the democratization by elections thesis, but rather shed light on its limitations. Moreover, it also corroborates that the problem of democratic progress is not only due to the fact that elections themselves are unfair. In many cases the playing field remains heavily tilted toward incumbents, but clientelism and powerful presidents exist in diverse settings and exert an independent impact on democratic outcomes. It is not enough to just get the elections right, the disproportionate formal powers of presidents need to be tempered too.

Young Hun Kim – Democratic Performance of Semi-presidentialism: It’s the Presidential Powers

This post by Young Hun Kim is a summary of an article “A Troubled Marriage? Divided Minority Government, Cohabitation, Presidential Powers, President-Parliamentarism and Semi-Presidentialism,” (Government and Opposition 2015).

Young Hun Kim photo

Semi-presidentialism, with its combination of prime minister and directly elected president, is a common feature in many of the world’s new democracies. About 40 percent of countries that experienced democratization between 1974 and 2009 (40 of 103) are classified as semi-presidential systems. More interestingly, some presidential and parliamentary democracies have transformed to semi-presidential governance. For example, presidential Armenia and Georgia adopted a dual-executive system in 1994 and 2004, respectively. More recently, the parliamentary Czech Republic elected its president by popular vote for the first time in February 2013 and Turkey, another parliamentary country, in August 2014.

However, research to date generally views semi-presidentialism as a liability to democratic governance, since it is more likely to experience partisan infighting in the executive branch and to foster political fragmentation in the legislature. Thus semi-presidential regimes are thought to be prone to government instability, lower levels of democracy, and even democratic failure (see for example, Elgie 2008; Elgie 2011; Elgie and McMenamin 2008; Protsyk 2005; Roper 2002; Sedelius and Ekman 2010). Considering the high popularity of semi-presidentialism among new democracies, these pessimistic understandings do not seem to bode well for their democratic future.

A recently published article “A Troubled Marriage?” reassesses democratic performance in all new semi-presidential systems across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America from 1974 to 2009. By democratic performance, the study refers to three challenging tasks that new democracies often deal with at executive and system levels. The first one is executive stability measured by presidential impeachment attempts and prime ministerial turnovers. Impeachment attempts are efforts made by legislative deputies to effect a constitutional removal of a president. Prime ministerial turnovers are situations in which a prime minister is replaced by a new figure excluding changes immediately following parliamentary elections. The second is the levels of democracy which is measured by dividing democratic years into partial democracy (where a Polity2 score ranges from +1 to +5) and full democracy (where a Polity2 score ranges from +6 to +10). The last one is democratic breakdown defined as a situation in which new democracies cease to function due to a military coup or civil war.

For factors that may affect the democratic performance, the study focuses on divided minority government (where no party or coalition controls a majority in the legislature), cohabitation (where the president and prime minister are from different parties and the president’s party is not represented in the executive), unchecked presidential powers, and a president-parliamentary subtype (where the prime minister and cabinet are responsible to both the president and the legislature, and the president has power to dismiss the legislature) that previous studies have identified as risk factors for semi-presidential regimes.

The results are more encouraging than previous research has suggested. A divided minority government contributes to higher levels of democracy, even though it, along with president-parliamentarism, generally means presidents becoming more vulnerable to legislative impeachment efforts. And cohabitation poses less risk than previously thought. It has little effect on either executive stability or the level of democracy.

What does appear to be a great risk for semi-presidentialism is a failure to check presidential powers. As presidents enjoy more powers, the level of democracy tends to decrease. In addition, prime ministers’ tenure in office becomes less stable and presidents are more subject to impeachment drives.

What explains the negative effects of a strong presidency? It might be suggested that having a strong president would be an asset in semi-presidential systems. This is because strong presidents may effectively coordinate and undertake critical reforms after transition (Holmes 1993). But it should be emphasized that presidents with stronger powers are not likely to negotiate and compromise with other political actors mostly because they can get things done on their own. As a result, the horizontal accountability is prone to be compromised (Fish 2006). Also strong presidents are likely to personalize the political process. Overall, disadvantages of a strong presidency seem to trump any merits associated with it from the experience of new semi-presidential democracies.

The findings have a significant implication for countries that already practice semi-presidential governance or are contemplating a move in that direction: checking presidential powers is one of the key factors that will influence democratic consolidation in semi-presidentialism. In particular, executive powers need to be balanced between president and prime minister. Doing so would not require a major constitutional overhaul. What is necessary is a relatively minor constitutional amendment regulating the distribution of executive powers. If countries can successfully check presidential powers, then a semi-presidential system may appear to be a more appealing option than it does now for many young democracies.


Elgie, Robert. 2008. ‘The Perils of Semi-Presidentialism. Are They Exaggerated?’ Democratization 15 (1):49-66.

———. 2011. Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-Types and Democratic Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elgie, Robert, and Iain McMenamin. 2008. ‘Semi-presidentialism and Democratic Performance.’ Japanese Journal of Political Science 9:323-40.

Fish, M. Steven. 2006. ‘Stronger Legislatures, Stronger Democracies.’ Journal of Democracy 17 (1):5-20.

Holmes, Stephen. 1993. ‘The Postcommunist Presidency.’ East European Constitutional Review 2:36-9.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2005. ‘Politics of Intraexecutive Conflict in Semipresidential Regimes in Eastern Europe.’ East European Politics and Societies 19 (2):135-60.

Roper, Steven D. 2002. ‘Are All Semipresidential Regimes the Same? A Comparison of Premier-Presidential Regimes.’ Comparative Politics 34 (3):253-72.

Sedelius, Thomas, and Joakim Ekman. 2010. ‘Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.’ Government and Opposition 45 (4):505-30.

Dr. Young Hun Kim (pokocham@hotmail.com) is a Visiting Assistant Professor at North Carolina Wesleyan College. He has earned his Ph.D. in political science in 2008 from the Pennsylvania State University. His research has focused mostly, but not exclusively, on comparative political institutions and democratization, with regional expertise in East Asia and Eastern Europe. More specifically, he examines sources and consequences of new types of presidential instability (interrupted presidencies and impeachment attempts), post-tenure fate of political leaders, and institutional determinants of democratic performance in presidential and semi-presidential systems. His research has appeared in Cross-Cultural Research, Democratization, Government and Opposition, and Journal of Politics.

The Philippines – Government Funds and Institution-building

A beleaguered President Benigno Aquino III challenged his opponents in early October to “Go ahead, impeach me” as efforts intensified to launch an inquiry into the existence and use of funds in the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) under the Presidency.

Affectionately known as Noynoy or Pnoy, the President has seen his approval ratings decline following the discovery of the DAP. The DAP was promulgated in October 2011; it recovers unused or underused public funds that had been targeted in the annual budget for spending and became a source of funding for senators’ projects and constituency spending. The unfortunate tie-in of DAP in the midst of public protests against and criminal investigations of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – the large pork-barrel scandal where key congressional members are currently investigated for diversion and misuse of funds and corruption – has seen the extension of public disapprobation to the President. Public petitions to the Supreme Court to act against the DAP has led to the scheduling of oral arguments for November 19 on the constitutionality of the DAP. For the President, whose key policy stance is the tuwid na daan (straight path), these are dark days indeed.

The controversy over the DAP is currently focused on the possible ethical breaches (at the very least) regarding the funds. This may sidestep a key issue regarding the use and effects of government spending: to build politics, society, and the economy. Importantly, in democratizing countries, these tasks translate into institution-building.[1] Institution-building takes on particular significance in democratizing nations because it displaces personalistic politics so that institutions – rather than personalities and personal relations – develop the facility and capacity to deliver regularly political, public, and social goods.[2] Political development in a democratizing system, then, depends on successful institution-building.

It is in this regard that the DAP may be a disservice to politics and society in the Philippines. Although “People Power” shepherded the democratization process in the Philippines, personalistic politics remains undented while institution-building has struggled to move beyond the presidency to other institutions, such as programmatic parties.[3] The presidency, then, continues to play a central and dominant role in domestic politics. Consequently, the occupant remains vulnerable to questions of ethics related to being the focus of power, i.e., abuses and corruption of high political office.

There is no question that the DAP serves a source of funds for expeditiously dealing with crises in the country, as its use towards the recent earthquake relief in the Central Visayan provinces demonstrates. President Aquino III’s point regarding the efficacy of the DAP, then, is not baseless.

Critics of the funds may be better positioned to note that judicious use of government funds extends beyond efficacy to institution-building. In this regard, President Aquino III is an important ally: he remains a highly regarded president, notwithstanding the recent decline in his approval ratings. More so than his predecessors, then, this is a president who may be able to swing the much-needed reforms towards institution-building, perhaps starting with who/what disseminates funds.

 [3] Rocamora, Joel. 1998. “Philippine Political Parties, Electoral System and Political Reform.” Philippines International Review, 1(1).