Tag Archives: Latin America

Fernando Meireles – Latin American presidents and their oversized government coalitions

This is a guest post by Fernando Meireles, Ph.D candidate in Political Science at Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil). E-mail: fmeireles@ufmg.br

In many countries, presidents have a difficult time governing because their parties lack a legislative majority. In fact, because of the combination of separate elections for executive and legislative branches with multiparty systems, this situation is far from uncommon: during the last two decades in all 18 Latin American countries with presidential systems, only 26% of the time has the president’s party had a majority in the lower house. Due to this constraint, as a vast amount of research now highlights, minority presidents usually form multiparty government coalitions by including other parties in their cabinets. Again, only four Latin American presidential countries in the last twenty years were not governed by a multiparty coalition at some point since the 1980s.

However, the need to craft a legislative majority alone does not explain why presidents frequently include more parties in their governments than necessary to obtain a minimum winning coalition – forming what I call an oversized government coalition. The distribution of this type of coalition in Latin America is shown in the graph below. As can be seen, it is not a rare phenomenon.

If government coalitions are costly to maintain, as presidents have to keep tabs on their coalition partners to ensure they are not exploiting their portfolios to their own advantage – not to mention the fact that by splitting spoils and resources between coalition partners, the president’s own party is worse off – then why are these oversized coalitions prevalent in some Latin American countries?

In a recent article in Brazilian Political Science Review, I tackled this puzzle by analyzing the emergence of oversized government coalitions in all 18 presidential countries in Latin America[1], followed by a case study focusing on Brazil, spanning from 1979 to 2012. To this end, I gathered data on cabinet composition[2] from several sources to calculate the size of each government coalition in the sample: if a coalition had at least one party that could be removed without hampering the majority status of the government in the lower house in a given year, I classified it as an oversized coalition.

Specifically, I examined three main factors that, according to previous research, should incentivize presidents to include more parties in their coalitions than necessary to ensure majority support: 1) the motivation party leaders have to maximize votes, which would make joining the government attractive to opposition parties (vote-seeking); 2) the motivation presidents have to avoid coalition defections to implement their policy agendas (policy-seeking); and 3) the institutional context, considering the effects of bicameralism, qualified majority rules, and party system format on government coalition size.

The results support some of the hypothesis suggested by the literature. First, presidents are more prone to form oversized coalitions at the beginning of their terms, which shows that the proximity to the election affects Latin American presidents’ decision to form, and opposition parties to accept being part of, large coalitions – as others studies argue, this is mainly due to parties defecting from a coalition to present themselves as opposition when elections are approaching. Second, party fragmentation also has a positive effect on the emergence of oversized coalitions, consistent with the hypothesis that presidents might include additional parties in their coalitions anticipating legislative defections. Yet on the other hand, presidential approval, party discipline, and ideological polarization do not have the same positive effects on the probability of an oversized coalition being formed.

The factor that has the most impact on the occurrence of oversized coalitions, however, is the legislative powers of the president. As the literature points out, legislative decrees and urgency bills could be used by skilled presidents to coordinate their coalitions, facilitating horizontal bargaining between coalition partners. The comparative results show that this is the case in Latin America: the difference in the predicted probability of a president with maximum legislative powers in the sample forming an oversized coalition and another with minimum powers is about 32 percent points.

By exploring the Brazilian case in more depth, I also found that bicameralism dynamics and qualified majority rules impact the emergence of oversized coalitions. With two chambers elected through different electoral rules, parties in Brazil are often unable to secure the same seat share in both houses; to make things worse for presidents, party switching is still widespread in the country. In this context, as my results uncovered, differences in the number of seats controlled by the government in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate positively affect the emergence of oversized coalitions. Finally, as some bills require supermajorities to be approved, such as constitutional amendments, reformist presidents also tend to form and maintain larger coalitions: the maximum value in this variable predicts increases by up to 10 percentage points on the probability of an oversized coalition being formed.

Taken together, these results show a more nuanced picture of why and how presidents form multiparty government coalitions in Latin America: often, obtaining a legislative majority is not enough to implement their legislative agendas, and so they might resort to a complementary strategy: to form larger coalitions. And presidents with greater legislative power, at the beginning of their terms or facing fragmented party systems, are in the best position to pursue such a strategy. In this way, both electoral and programmatic factors, as well as the institutional context, become key to understand variations in the size and the composition of government coalitions in presidential countries.


[1] These countries are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

[2] The criteria employed to identify a government coalition is the party affiliation of the ministers of the principal ministerial portfolios in each country – taking into account that ministers are not always recruited due to their connections or their congressional influence, and that in some cases they are not recognized by their parties as legitimate representatives of the same.

Johannes Freudenreich – The Formation of Cabinet Coalitions in Presidential Systems

This is a guest post by Johannes Freudenreich, Postdoctoral research fellow at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institut für Politikwissenschaft at the University of Munich. It is based on an recent article in Latin American Politics and Society

In the beginning of the 21st century, prospects of Latin American presidential democracies were good. The dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s had vanished, economies were constantly growing, and comprehensive social welfare programs were implemented. Many political scientists link these successes to the ability of Latin American presidents to form, maintain and manage cabinet coalitions (Cheibub 2007). The differences between presidential and parliamentary systems of government seemed to have become rather marginal. Both presidents and prime ministers achieved legislative majorities by forming broad cabinet coalitions and critics of the presidential form of democracy, such as Juan Linz (1994), seemed to be proven wrong. However, soon presidential impeachments became the new pattern of political instability in the region (Pérez Liñan 2007). Cabinet reshuffling remains constantly high and broad corruption schemes, directly linked to coalition politics, have been disclosed, such as the Mensalão Scandal in Brazil, where the ruling party of President Lula da Silva used illegal side payments to secure the legislative support of members of the ruling coalition.

My recent article in Latin American Politics and Society takes a systematic look at the formation of cabinet coalitions in presidential systems over the past 25 years. It analyzes the extent to which presidents in 13 Latin American countries have formed coalitions that increase their law-making capabilities, and whether presidents form coalitions tailored to find majorities in Congress especially when presidents have low independent influence over policy based on their institutional law-making powers.

The study complements the perspective that cabinet coalitions are largely an instrument for finding legislative majorities with the idea that presidents use cabinet posts to honor pre-electoral support. The reason is the following: presidential elections provide strong incentives for electoral coordination because they tend to favor two-candidate competition. In a multi-party setting, this means that parties have incentives to form pre-electoral coalitions to present joint presidential candidates. When negotiating pre-electoral pacts, parties are likely to agree on how to share the benefits of winning including cabinet posts. After the election, presidents find it difficult to abandon these agreements as they need the trust and support of other parties within and outside of their coalition during their presidential term. Thus, it is expected that cabinet coalitions are likely to be based on the electoral team of presidents and that other legislative parties are invited to join the cabinet only additionally to parties of the existing pre-electoral coalition.

The study further argues that parties attractive as pre-electoral coalition partners are not necessarily the ones that would achieve cabinet participation if the negotiations of cabinet posts were an unconstrained post-electoral process. For example, in a one-dimensional policy space, extreme parties, parties more extreme than the president to the median legislator, are relatively unimportant for legislative decisions and thus unlikely to be included in the cabinet for legislative reasons. In a presidential race, however, extreme parties can provide valuable votes and campaign resources and therefore have far stronger blackmailing power. Furthermore, presidential contests produce a strong antagonism between the president and the parties of the president’s electoral rivals. Since the president’s survival in office is not contingent on the support of other parties in parliament, parties that present a strong presidential candidate are likely to be excluded from the cabinet, even if their inclusion is rational from a lawmaking perspective. It is therefore expected that the party of the runner-up is generally excluded from the presidential cabinet and that the overall explanatory power of variables of legislative bargaining increases once one controls for the effects of pre-electoral coalition formation and competition.

The study empirically evaluates this argumentation on the basis of so-called conditional logit models, presenting a new empirical strategy to analyze cabinet formation under this type of regime. The tests are conducted on a new dataset of 107 democratic cabinets in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Based on the new method and data, this study presents the most comprehensive test yet of the determinants of the partisan composition of presidential cabinets.

The most note-worthy empirical results are:

First, presidents try to form majority coalitions, but it is the upper house majority not the lower house majority which makes cabinet coalitions significantly likely to from. One potential explanation for this phenomenon is that there are generally fewer parties in the upper than in the lower chamber, due to the disproportionality of electoral systems used to elect upper chambers in Latin America. Thus, the president’s party is often overrepresented in the upper house, which makes it easier for presidents to find majorities. Furthermore, upper chambers are generally strong in Latin America (Nolte and Llanos 2004), and controlling an upper chamber is often sufficient for the president to prevent a veto override.

Second, contrary to expectations in the literature, extensive presidential decree powers decrease the probability of the occurrence of cabinets which control only a minority of seats in the lower house of congress. A potential explanation for this phenomenon is similar to the argument developed by Strøm (1990) for minority governments in parliamentary systems. Parties prefer to stay in opposition when the government has a weak independent influence on policy. The other explanation is that pre-electoral coalition formation is more prevalent when presidents’ institutional authority is high, as political actors make a relatively simple calculation about the benefits and the costs of coordination in presidential elections. The more powerful the president, the higher the incentives for pre-electoral coalition formation (Hicken and Stoll 2008; Freudenreich 2013). And if the a coalition is in power anyway, it is easier to extend this coalition to secure a majority in the lower house of congress.

Third, considerations of governability and pre-electoral bargaining describe two distinct yet compatible sets of factors that influence cabinet formation in presidential systems. Many cabinet coalitions in Latin America are congruent or extended versions of the pre-electoral coalition of the president and parties of the main presidential competitor are generally excluded from the cabinet, but these factors are distinct to the incentives of legislative bargaining. The explanatory power of variables associated with governability increases once variables of pre-electoral bargaining are included in the statistical model. For example, cabinet coalitions are more likely to form when they include the median party in the lower chamber of congress, but this effect is only statistically significant when one controls for the effects of pre-electoral bargaining.

Overall, the paper tries to show that an inclusive approach is necessary to study coalition dynamics in presidential systems. Pre-electoral commitments strongly affect cabinet formation and thereby also confound the relationship between cabinet formation, legislative bargaining and governability.


Cheibub, José A. 2007. Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Freudenreich, Johannes. 2013. Coalition Formation in Presidential Systems. Ph.D. diss., University of Potsdam.

Hicken, Allen, and Heather Stoll. 2008. Electoral Rules and the Size of the Prize: How Political Institutions Shape Presidential Party Systems. Journal of Politics 70, 4: 1109–27.

Linz, Juan J. 1994. Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference? In The Failure of Presidential Democracy: The Case of Latin America, ed. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 3–89.

Nolte, Detlef/Mariana Llanos. 2004. “Starker Bikameralismus? Zur Verfassungslage lateinamerikanischer Zweikammersysteme.” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 35: 113-131.

Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Strøm, Kaare. 1990. Minority Government and Majority Rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Catherine Reyes-Housholder – Presidentas Rise: Consequences for Women in Cabinets?

This is a guest post by Catherine Reyes-Housholder, Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. It is based on her paper, “Presidentas Rise: Consequences for Women in Cabinets?”, published in Latin American Politics and Society, 58 (3): 3-25, 2016.

More and more scholars and citizens want to know not only how women access presidential power, but what women do with this power once they are in office. Do female presidents use their power to promote change favoring women? I tackle this question by examining gender in the executive branch in Latin America—a region that has elected female presidents more times (nines so far) than any other region of the world.

There are some theoretical reasons to believe that female presidents will use their presidential power to promote change favoring women. In a recent article in Latin American Politics and Society, I argued that female presidents are more likely than male presidents to nominate women to their cabinets.

There are two reasons for this. The first speaks to bottom-up pressures from voters and the second to top-down, elite factors. First, female presidents are more likely than their male counterparts to interpret their mandate as a call for a greater female presence in the executive branch. Voting for a female president could easily be interpreted as a desire not just for a female president, but also for more female ministers. Female presidents thus may appoint more women to their cabinets because they believe their constituencies want them to.

Turning to top-down factors, the second reason has to do with the kinds of personal qualities presidents seek when they choose their ministers. In Latin America, presidents have virtually no formal restrictions on who they can nominate (i.e. no legislative body approves the presidents’ ministerial picks). So much of cabinet decision-making is based on informal considerations.

Presidents tend to seek ministerial candidates with two specific qualities: like-mindedness and loyalty. They look for like-minded ministers because they need someone who generally agrees with their policy ideas, or is at least like-minded enough to productively disagree and produce a better solution. Presidents also need loyal ministers who will faithfully execute their legislative agenda and are unlikely to threaten their hold on power.

Why would female presidents be more likely than male presidents to perceive women as more like-minded and loyal? The homophily principle and scholarship on gendered political networks helps explain this. Gender homophily is the recurring phenomenon where, ceteris paribus, women tend to associate more with women and men tend to associate more with men. Studies on gendered political networks suggest that male-dominance tends to feed on itself, making it difficult for women to penetrate male networks. On the flip side, because elite female politicians are more likely than their male counterparts to network with women, female presidents are more likely to perceive elite female politicians as like-minded and loyal.

So there are two reasons why we should expect female presidents and female ministers to present certain affinities. First, female presidents are more likely to face bottom-up pressures to do so. Second, female presidents are more likely to view female ministerial candidates as like-minded and loyal. They therefore face elite-based incentives to name more female ministers. These bottom-up mandate and top-down elite variables may both function as mechanisms linking presidents’ sex to a use of power to enhance women’s presence in cabinets.

But there’s a catch. While male presidents often historically have named all-male cabinets, female presidents are highly unlikely to completely exclude men. This is in part because female presidents face an informal constraint in assembling their cabinets. One of the most important constraints on their ability to name female ministers is the supply of female ministerial candidates. One major determinant of the supply is “political capital resources,” which can refer to relationships with party elites and with industries or social groups related to a particular ministry (i.e. women’s groups for Women’s Ministries).

Because women are less likely than men to possess “political capital resources,” the female pool ministerial candidates is generally much more shallow than the male pool. So I also argue that female presidents are more likely to “make a difference” in terms of women’s presence in cabinets when the pool of female ministerial candidates is deepest. Right after their inauguration, the pool for both male and female candidates is deeper than later on in the presidential term. As presidents later fire and hire ministers, the pool of qualified candidates will continue to shrink. I predicted that female presidents’ decision-making in naming women to cabinet is most likely to statistically differ from male presidents’ decision-making at the beginning rather than at the end of their terms.

The depth of the female ministerial pool also depends on certain characteristics of ministries. Some ministries are more associated with traditionally “feminine” roles and qualities—for example education and health. Others, namely defense and finance, are more “masculine.” There will tend to be more female ministerial candidates for “feminine” ministries because female politicians are more likely to possess political capital resources in traditionally feminine domains than traditionally masculine domains. For example, female politicians are more likely to possess political capital resources in areas of education rather than defense; they are more likely to have networked with social organizations related to schools than the military.

In short, I argue that female presidents overall are more likely than their male counterparts to name women to the cabinets. However, due to supply constraints, female presidents’ impact will likely be strongest for their inaugural cabinets and for “feminine” ministries.

I tested this theory on an original database of all inaugural and end-of-term cabinets by all democratically elected presidents from 1999-2015 in 18 Latin American countries. The dataset included 1,908 ministers. I found some evidence that presidentas in Latin America tended to name more women to their cabinets, and the most consistent evidence showed that they were more likely to name women to their inaugural cabinets and to “feminine” ministries. The dataset is located on the Harvard dataverse and on my web site www.reyes-housholder.com where you can access all the documents you would need to replicate my findings.

To conclude, there are theoretical reasons to believe and empirical evidence showing that female presidents will use at least their delegative power to improve women’s numerical representation in the executive branch.

Guillermo Rosas and Luigi Manzetti – Misery, corruption, and presidential approval

This is a guest post by Guillermo Rosas and Luigi Manzetti. It summarizes their recent paper, ‘Reassessing the trade-off hypothesis: How misery drives the corruption effect on presidential approval’ that was published in Electoral Studies, Volume 39, September 2015, pp. 26–38.

In “Reassessing the trade-off hypothesis: How misery drives the corruption effect on presidential approval”, we scrutinize a belief common among observers of Latin American politics according to which citizens in the region support corrupt governments as long as these are able to keep the good times rolling. Presidents that have arguably condoned corruption yet managed to win reelection include, among others, Carlos Menem in Argentina and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. Observers often employ the lema “rouba, mas faz” (he steals, but he delivers) that characterized Ademar de Barros, an early 20th-century governor of the state of Sao Paolo, to celebrate the political longevity of these leaders.

Though a limited version of the trade-off hypothesis focuses on citizens that receive some direct benefit in exchange for supporting a government that otherwise condones corruption,[1] a more general claim suggests that voters might be willing to tolerate corruption as long as governments oversee high economic growth and low rates of inflation and unemployment. To test this more general flavor of the “trade-off hypothesis”, we analyzed information from over 141,000 respondents in 83 nationally representative surveys fielded by Americas Barometer[2] between 2004 and 2012. Rather than focusing on the declared vote intention of respondents, we concentrated on their levels of “presidential approval”, that is, on their assessment of their country’s president on a 5-point scale. We also avoided the use of elicited perceptions of corruption, because this indicator typically produces a large endogeneity bias as individuals tend to declare high perceptions of corruption whenever they disapprove of their government.[3] We show in our study that using an indicator of corruption victimization produces more reasonable estimates of the effect of corruption on presidential approval.[4]

Figure 1 displays partially-pooled estimates of the “corruption effect”—that is, the estimated impact of being a victim of bureaucratic corruption on an individual’s proclivity to approve of the president—in the 83 surveys that we inspect (in arriving at these estimates, we control for several individual- and survey-level confounders). For comparison, we also display as a grey horizontal bar the 95% credible interval corresponding to our estimate of a negative corruption effect pooled across all surveys. With the single exception of Bolivia in 2010, where our estimate of the corruption effect is positive but substantively small, we either uncover no effect or a negative effect across surveys. In Brazil 2008, for example, the estimated corruption effect is clearly negative, but we cannot detect a similar effect in Brazil 2010.


What explains these varying corruption effects? We focus on understanding whether a country’s economic performance deepens or assuages the effect of corruption victimization on approval.[5] Based on the logic behind Arthur Okun’s celebrated misery index (misery = inflation rate + unemployment rate), we expected inflation and unemployment to have a greater impact on the size of the corruption effect than economic growth. The rationale is that misery has a higher impact on the purchasing power of an average citizen. Inflation, in particular, is a tax that affects all citizens; more specifically, situations of high inflation are extremely disruptive, and ordinary citizens have little capacity to protect themselves from its worst effects. Similarly, high unemployment reveals that labor markets may be extremely tight, so that even those lucky enough to be employed cannot easily search for better-paid jobs. The primacy of inflation and unemployment as potential drivers of the corruption effect is also well documented in clarity of responsibility thesis according to which citizens perceive both factors to be under the control of the incumbent government.[6]

We find that inflation and unemployment have a discernible impact on the “corruption effect” in the Latin American surveys that we analyzed; in contrast, we do not find evidence that economic growth matters either way. Figure 2 shows how estimates of the corruption effect tend to become larger (i.e., more negative) as the rates of inflation and unemployment increase, while controlling for obvious survey-level covariates. We acknowledge in our study that observations from Venezuela, which suffered extraordinary high rates of inflation between 2006 and 2010, may affect our inferences inordinately, but we also believe that Latin American citizens would react similarly in the face of hyperinflation. Consequently, we suggest that information provided by the Venezuelan observations should be, at worst, only mildly discounted.
Based on presidential approval series, we conclude that Latin American voters are not easily duped. Those who experience corruption assess the country’s president negatively, and inflation and unemployment tend to lower a president’s average rates of approval. But along the lines of the more general “trade-off” hypothesis, we also find that the worse marks on presidential approval come from those that suffer corruption in economic environments characterized by inflation and unemployment.

Electoral accountability may yet foster good governance in Latin America. Naturally, there is a long causal chain going from presidential approval to vote choice to removal of governments that condone bureaucratic corruption, and even when voters disapprove of a president they might lack better alternatives among the opposition. At the very least, however, we should eliminate stereotypes about voters that prefer “corrupt but effective” leaders” over “clean but inept” politicians. Latin American voters do not forget the slights of corruption victimization as soon as they are in a macroeconomically stable environment; if there is something akin to a trade-off hypothesis, it is only because they return a harsher verdict on the executive when misery is added to the indignities of bureaucratic corruption.

[1]See Matthew S. Winters and Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro. 2013. “Lacking Information or CondoningCorruption? Voter Attitudes Toward Corruption in Brazil.” Journal of Comparative Politics 45(4):418–436.

[2]The Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) produces the AmericasBarometer, which can be found at www.LapopSurveys.org.

[3]See, among others, Mitchell A Selligson. 2006. “The Measurement and Impact of Corruption Victimisation: Survey Evidence from Latin America.” World Development 34(2):381–404.

[4]We employ an indicator that is coded 1 when the respondent reports a bribe solicitation from a public employee at any point during the twelve months that precede the interview.

[5]Elizabeth Zechmeister and Daniel Zizumbo-Colunga analyze within-country variance to address this same question. Zechmeister and Zizumbo-Colunga. 2013. “The Varying Political Toll of Concerns about Corruption in Good versus Bad Economic Times.” Comparative Political Studies 46(10):1190–1218.

[6]G. Bingham Powell Jr. and Guy D. Whitten. 1993. “A Cross-National Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context.” American Journal of Political Science 37:391–414.

Guillermo RosasGuillermo Rosas is Associate Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. His research focuses on the economic consequences of political regimes and on the effects of political institutions on political behavior in Latin America.



Luigi ManzettiLuigi Manzetti is a research associate at the Tower Center and at the Center for Civil Society Studies of the Copenhagen Business School. He specializes in issues that include governance, corruption, and market reforms in Latin America.


Shane P. Singh and Ryan E. Carlin – Happy Medium, Happy Citizens

This is a guest post by Shane P. Singh and Ryan E. Carlin from the University of Georgia and Georgia State University respectively

As democracy’s third wave gathered steam, constitutional engineers argued fervently that “getting the institutions right” could help inoculate fledgling democracies from breakdown. Linz famously warned that reverting to presidential models of democracy in Latin America would perpetuate the cycle of democratic instability in the region. He cautioned of a “dual mandate” problem: since both executive and legislature could claim to speak for the voters, they were destined to clash. Fixed terms and an aura of sovereignty would only make the matter worse and lead to praetorian politics. Such arguments notwithstanding, newly (re-)emerged democracies throughout Latin America maintained presidentialism but reformed its institutional framework by improving its flexibility and stability in various ways. This broad institutional experimentation begs the question: are certain models of presidentialism more likely to produce consolidated democracy?

Focusing on attitudinal consolidation, in an article recently published in Political Research Quarterly, we reason that executive powers are associated with opinions about democracy. On the one hand, voters expect a degree of control over presidents, and a president that supersedes his or her mandate could spur disillusionment with the principles and performance of democratic regimes. On the other hand, an enfeebled president who lacks power could end up in perpetual conflict with the legislature, leading voters to become unhappy with policy immobilism and, ultimately, a deficit in representation. Thus, from a citizen’s perspective, the sweet spot should lie in the middle. Presidents who are either very weak or very strong will foster discouragement with democracy. But presidents who have balanced powers, and thus must engage in some give and take with the legislature, will cultivate public support for democratic regimes.

To test our expectations, we gather surveys spanning 1995-2005 from 18 Latin American countries, all with presidential models of democracy. Our dataset includes over 100,000 individuals, each of which was asked a.) whether they believe democracy is the best form of government, and b.) whether they are satisfied with the way democracy works in their country. We also gathered three measures of presidential power: an index of the legislative powers afforded to the president by the constitution, a measure of the degree to which the president is constrained by the legislature, and a measure of the president’s realized legislative success, or “box score,” calculated as the percentage of bills initiated by the president that were approved by the legislature.

As expected, we find that each measure is associated with attitudes toward democracy in a curvilinear fashion. That is, as presidential power and prerogative initially rise, individuals become more positive toward democracy, but at a certain point, further increases in presidential strength harm attitudes toward democracy. Our findings are illustrated in the figure, which makes it clear that each index of presidential power has an inverse-U shaped relationship with democratic support.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 17.40.18


















As an example, the bottom-right panel depicts the relationship between legislative success and the probability that a citizen is “very”or “fairly” satisfied with democracy. Consider a president whose passage rate is just 33 percent, like Colombian president Ernesto Samper in 1996. Starting from this low success rate, a standard deviation increase is associated with about a 7-percentage point increase in the likelihood that a citizen is satisfied with democracy. Citizens value presidents who are not completely ineffectual. Compare this to a president with twice the passage rate (66 percent), such as Honduran president Carlos Roberto Reina in 1996. Starting from this middling success rate, a standard deviation increase is associated with about a 10-percentage point decrease in the likelihood of a respondent expressing satisfaction with democracy. Citizens also value presidents who are not completely dominant.

Interestingly, this curvilinear relationship is not conditional on economic performance or trust in the president. In other words, citizens do not desire very strong powers for presidents who preside over booming economies, and even citizens who fully trust the president become less positive toward democracy when he or she wields vast authority.

Our findings suggest that, when it comes to fomenting mass regime support, not all forms of presidentialism are created equal. Presidential democracies are most legitimate in the eyes of the citizens where presidents enjoy a happy medium of lawmaking power. And although presidents with vast formal powers and/or broad legislative majorities can avoid gridlock and fluidly implement their agendas, such behavior can fuel discontent with democracy and undermine its legitimacy. The same is true if the president’s every attempt to effect legislation is thwarted. Of course, the idea that a balance of power is good for democracy is nothing new. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Note: a slightly different version of this post appeared at The Quantitative Peace in June of 2014.



Shane P. Singh is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He received his Ph.D. in 2009 from Michigan State University. His research focuses on the institutional and contextual foundations of political behavior and attitudes. His work has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and his research has appeared in many academic journals and edited volumes. His website is found at http://www.shanepsingh.com.


Ryan Carlin political scienceRyan E. Carlin is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. He received his Ph.D. in 2008 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a Faculty Affiliate of GSU’s Center Latin American and Latino Studies and the Center for Human Rights and Democracy, and an Affiliated Researcher of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University. His research interests are comparative political behavior and public opinion, with a regional emphasis on Latin America. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, USAID, the Mellon and Ford Foundations, and the Latin American Studies Association. He is co-editor of The Latin American Voter (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming) and his work has appeared in many academic journals. His website is found at https://sites.google.com/site/ryanecarlin/.