Tag Archives: Presidential Administration

Through the looking-glass and what AMLO found there…

Children´s literary classics become so not only because of their appeal to young readers, but also because their themes, characters, dialogues and narratives can be constantly (re)discovered by very distinct audiences across time and space. We think of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince as classics because they shed light on a rather complex set of issues. Leaning on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, in what follows, I limn the contours of Mexican politics a year after Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) landslide electoral victory.

I intend to illuminate the struggle analysts, advocates and critics face when attempting to elucidate whether what’s happening in Mexican politics is having —or going to have— either positive or negative consequences. The reader should be aware that, if effective, this depiction of Mexico’s political chiaroscuro is bound to raise more questions than answers. For clarity, I first offer a brief synthesis of Lewis Carroll’s tale. I then draw parallels between AMLO’s governing style and three memorable characters of the story. Lastly, the conclusion reflects on how fiction might —or might not— overcome reality.     

In Carroll’s sequel to Adventures in Wonderland, Alice enters once again a fantastical world by climbing into a mirror. Inside this reflection, Alice unknowingly becomes part of a chess game. As the story unfolds, she moves across the board, meeting memorable characters like the Red Queen, Tweedledum & Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty along the way. Although in this world everything seems to be reversed, Alice manages to win the game and wakes up questioning whether her recent adventure or her sudden wakefulness are real at all.

Walking through…

In spite of dominating polls throughout the 2018 campaign trail, López Obrador’s victory shook pundits, critics and enthusiasts alike. Some have even claimed that MORENA’s (AMLO’s party) tsunami represents the first real rotation of political elites in almost a century, and that, just like walking through glass, was something that ex ante seemed or was thought of as impossible. Backed by 30 million votes, AMLO walked through the mirror. A decades-long stentorian opposition leader turned president.

One year in…

A year after the election, and seven months in office, close observers will quickly recognize how contemporary Mexican politics resembles several of Alice’s encounters and dialogues on her quest to win the chess match. The first and perhaps most dramatic example concerns time. Sworn to kick-start Mexico’s fourth transformation, AMLO is poised to beat Time.

Hailing ‘an overhaul of the political system’ rather than just a shift in administration, the pace at which AMLO’s government is introducing reforms and modifications seems to signal that for him and his cabinet, days necessarily have more than just 24 hours. AMLO’s government has been a true and tested example that time’s relativity is not only a physical phenomenon, but also a political one.

Examples of this precocity for change can be found across a wide array of policy dimensions and arenas: re-structuring of the federal budget, a deep (re)accommodation of the bureaucratic apparatus, the creation of the Guardia Nacional, an airport cancellation, as well as significant efforts to formally (or informally) stop most of former president Peña Nieto’s so-called structural reforms.

This re-interpretation of time has had, of course, drastic consequences. On the one hand, it has evidenced a lack of refinement and detail in the design and execution of governmental action. On the other hand, it has pressured an otherwise lethargic and feeble state apparatus to operate beyond its current capabilities. Recurring cabinet resignations and a media overload of information are additional symptoms of this change spree.

The advice the Red Queen gives to Alice upon entering the chess game can be closely linked to this stretching of time and accelerated transformation since, as the queen suggests, “if you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast”. The risk, however, as she first points out, is that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place”.

AMLO’s “Red Queen politics”, just like its counter parts in biology and marketing, runs the risk of trying to re-invent the wheel, launching new programs, creating new institutes and organizations and redefining policies, just so that Mexico —its economy and democracy— can (in the best scenario) remain the same.

That AMLO’s tempo is distinct and that he strives to foster ubiquitous change should be by now clear to anyone who has followed the president’s mañaneras. Every weekday by 7 a.m. López Obrador has a press conference in which, aided by cabinet members, he sets the agenda and has constant exchanges with media. While the image of an open, hard-working president has definitely helped Obrador to keep surprisingly high approval rates, these morning meetings have been marred by AMLO constantly rejecting criticism by retorting that he has “other information”.

When thinking about Mexico’s president alternative facts —or more broadly when thinking about the peculiar relation populist leaders from across the ideological spectrum have to data— I cannot help but remember Humpty Dumpty’s remark that “when [he] uses a word, it means just what [he] chooses it to mean”. When confronted by Alice –or the media— as the extent to which this conceptual stretching can go on, Humpty Dumpty replies that “the question is, which is to be master -that’s all”.

For the past year López Obrador has been master not only of the political agenda but also of the narrative and the language used to discuss politics in Mexico. His popularity and a majoritarian support in Congress, have allowed him to challenge and redefine the spectrum of what’s considered good or bad politics. His is the only effective truth and so far, no one has managed to challenge that.

Wrapping up…

With two years until mid-term congressional elections and five years left in the presidency, AMLO’s chess game has got a long way ahead. As it stands, the recent victory of MORENA in the state of Puebla exemplifies that the opposition has yet to find its ground and catch up with the times. To understand current Mexican political tidings, and perhaps to lessen polarization while enhancing the ability to articulate a critical alternative, it is necessary to grasp that AMLO’s government through its distinct looking-glass, has redefined the political coordinates of time, space and even language.

In the upcoming months, the Mexican landscape will consequently be redefined by an interplay between the opposition’s ability to rediscover its voice and AMLO’s maneuvering to overcome the limitations interwoven in (t)his “new” reality. In the meantime, advocates and critics continue to resemble Tweedledum & Tweedledee, the one saying that “if it [is] so, it might be” while the other one retorts “but as it isn’t, it ain’t”.

*All of the quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass were taken from an online version of the text available at <https://bit.ly/1WF0SZH>.

Fabian Burkhardt – The Paradox of Presidential Power under Authoritarianism: Studying the Institutionalization of Russia’s Presidential Administration 1994 – 2012


This is a guest post by Fabian Burkhardt (University of Bremen & German Institute for International and Security Affairs)

Rulers cannot rule alone. This simple wisdom is oftentimes forgotten with regard to Putin’s Russia. This blog post summarises a paper presented at the BASEES Annual Conference in Cambridge that attempts a systematic inquiry into the institutionalization of Russia’s ‘institutional presidency’ – the Presidential Administration – between 1994 and 2012. It argues that partial institutionalization over time contributed to an increase in presidential administrative power. But as personalism and proceduralism coexist, presidents remained weak and debilitated at the same time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with Sergei Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office (left) | photo via Kremlin.ru

The U.S.-American presidency remains the best-studied example of a presidential administration to date. After early presidents still had to hire staff out of their own pocket, Congress finally granted funds – albeit only for a single clerk. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939, the White House staff has steadily  grown into a fully-fledged bureaucratic organization. In the U.S. literature on the ‘institutional presidency’ – the process of staff growth, functional specialization, increasing complexity and routinized patterns of organizing work – is referred to as ‘institutionalization’ and usually contrasted to Neustadt’s seminal, but president-centered, personalized perspective on presidential power. We know quite a lot about the complexity, centralization, politicization and unilateralism of the U.S. ‘institutional presidency’, but not very much about ‘presidential centers’ elsewhere. Particularly for post-Soviet countries, and the Russian Federation more specifically, much remains to be explored. This can be partly ascribed to a lack of readily available data, yet this is also predicated on the tendency to focus on executive-legislative relations on the one hand, and a president-centered leadership bias on the other. Moreover, Russia scholars have made numerous contributions to the ‘Institutions under Authoritarianism’ literature, but so far they limited themselves to the legislature, parties, elections, or center-region-relations.

My research aims to open up the black box of an “institutional presidency” under authoritarianism: I analyze the ‘institutionalization’ of ‘the Kremlin’ – or more precisely the Presidential Administration (PA) – by taking a longitudinal view from 1994 until 2012, a period which spans the three presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and ten chiefs of staff. This strategy was chosen, among others, to investigate in how far core characteristics of the PA survive turnover of presidents and chiefs of staffs. To do this I applied a framework that was initially developed by Samuel Huntington who understood institutionalization as an “increasingly stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”, and which was later applied to the U.S. and Latin American ‘institutional presidencies’ (Table 1).

Scholars have attested a high degree of personalism to Russian governance both in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1990s the PA defied “traditional categories of organizational analysis” as it mixed “hierarchical bureaucracy” and a “loose confederation of offices” (Huskey 2016). Furthermore, Yeltsin’s approach to organizing advice in the administration “was individualized, anti-procedural, and anti-institutional” (Breslauer 2008). In the 2000s, a high degree of regime personalization, neopatrimonialism and patronal politics should also present a major obstacle to institutionalization. However, if we follow the logic of the literature on stable authoritarian regimes, one would expect that autocrats strive to reduce uncertainty of future outcomes by means of stable patterns recurring over time. Huskey sees the Russia of the 2000s as a technocratic authoritarian regime with an ever increasing “bureaucratization of politics”, hence concomitant to the party system or executive-legislative relations one should also expect a certain degree of institutionalization in the PA.

My research shows that, unsurprisingly, both proceduralism and personalism persisted, but their proportion changed over time. In my view, a strong case can be made for at least a partial institutionalization of the PA, mostly thanks to an increased autonomy, regularized procedures and more stable structures in the adaptability and complexity indicators.

With regard to autonomy, a tendency towards a “progressive independence of the executive power” (Schmitter 1976). This can be illustrated by the swelling of the PA’s share of the annual state budget in comparison to other state organs. While in 1994, both the PA and the Duma’s share were comparable at about 0.1 percent, by 2012 the share of the PA grew to around 0.7 percent while the Duma’s was more than 17 times smaller (0.04%). Until 1999 the difference was not that large, yet the years 1999 – 2003 marked a transition period which suggests that the rise of United Russia as a dominant party played a significant role in this.

Recruitment patterns of PA staff were used as a second indicator to find out whether staff was hired and promoted from the outside of the PA, or by means of a more closed hiring system from the inside. The challenge was to choose a category of staff that existed for the whole period of investigation. Therefore, I collected a complete data set of all presidential representatives in Russia’s regions for 1991 and 1999 and Main Federal Inspectors (MFI), who after the 2000 federalism reform fulfilled approximately the same task.

Figure 1 shows that until 1999 Federal Representatives were almost exclusively recruited from outside the PA, most frequently with a background from the federal parliament, or regional executives or legislatures. However, by 2004 more than one third of MFI boasted experience within the PA apparatus of federal representatives before they were promoted to this position.

For the adaptability indicator, a complete set of all units of the PA was compiled with information on their duration of survival over time.

Among the 100 units in the set, only seven “core units” survived for the whole period of investigation. Overall, I find that in the 1990s almost four times as many units were created as in the 2000s, after Putin came to power the units survived on average twice as long as under Yeltsin. Also, electoral cycles, and with them the rotation of chiefs of staff in proximity to elections, became crucial for the survival of units.

For complexity and functional specialization, organigrams were collected from various sources such as archives, presidential decrees and media. These schemes give an idea how structure “shapes the kind, caliber, and amount of information presidents receive on policy matters”. Figure 3 provides just one example to illustrate the approach: 1996 three parallel hierarchies existed within the administration: The Service of Aides (upper left), the security pillar which includes the Security Council (upper right) as well as the general management pillar subordinate directly to the chief of staff (lower middle).

The legendary Service of Aides was soon to abolished and never to be revived, among others because of the competing hierarchy and direct information channel it created paralleling the one of the chief of staff. Overall, it can be posited that at the latest by 1998 a consolidated structure was achieved by excluding some major units that had made the organization exceedingly complex. After that time, merging and adding new smaller units by layering were the main strategies of “institutional gardening” applied.

And finally, coherence refers to unity and consensus, and is operationalized as rule-following and compliance. For this purpose, I compiled annual implementation rates of presidential orders (Porucheniia Prezidenta) from internal statistics of the PA’s own Monitoring Department. Stunningly, for the 2000s only between 40 and 60 percent of presidential orders were implemented by the addressees of these orders. In other words executive actors oftentimes resist Putin’s policy initiatives. While even in Western democracies it cannot be assumed that unilateral executive acts are self-enforcing, in Russia this can be explained by bad governance and “debilitated dirigisme”: the “failure of an activist state”, or in this case an activist president, to control its supposedly subordinate agents.

So where does this leave us? In his seminal work on authoritarian Chile Pablo Policzer remarked that “rulers cannot rule alone”. This might sound a bit simplistic at first glance, but is highly relevant for Russia. Presidents – be it Yeltsin, Putin or Medvedev – were only as powerful as their administrations allowed them to be. Especially Vladimir Putin who is oftentimes portrayed as seemingly omnipotent oftentimes winds up being impotent after all, in particular when other actors need to be empowered to get things done. Due to a partial institutionalization of the PA, the ‘power over’ – its organizational and coercive aspects – increased, but not the ‘power to’, the ability to govern proactively.

Fabian Burkhardt is completing his PhD entitled “Presidential power and institutional change: A study on the presidency of the Russian Federation” at the University of Bremen’s Research Centre for East European Studies. He is a member of the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies in Munich. Currently, he is also a fellow at the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. More information about his research can be found here (https://lmu-munich.academia.edu/FabianBurkhardt). He tweets @fa_burkhardt.