Tag Archives: Presidential Power

Poland – The president as legislator

On 20 November, Polish president Duda submitted another bill proposal the Sejm (lower chamber of parliament), this time aimed at creating local social services centres. Although presidents have frequently used this prerogative in the past (to the same degree as vetoes and requests for judicial review), Duda has been particularly active and proposed over two dozen separate bills so far. However, the Polish president is only one of four European presidents vested with the power to propose ordinary legislation – interestingly, the other three countries are also from Central and Eastern Europe (i.e. Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania).

Polish president Duda presents the act amending the law on legal aid and education that resulted from his initiative, 30 July 2018 / ® Polish Presidential Office 2018

The president’s right to propose legislation has been included in all Polish constitutions since the fall of Communism, including the heavily amended Communist constitution (it was not, however, part of the Polish interwar constitutions). As the Polish president only possesses a block veto, the provision partly compensates for the lack of agenda-setting power through amendatory observations (as is the case in most other post-communist systems). Nevertheless, parliament is not obliged to consider presidential initiatives and can – once they have received by the appropriate committee – be abandoned without fearing any consequences. Furthermore, as presidents do not have any reserved policy areas for their initiatives, the usefulness of the power depends very much on the composition of parliament and government. If presidents have a majority (or at least strong presence) in parliament and/or government, bills are more likely to be accepted. Presidents without significant partisan support in other institutions should have little chance of seeing their bills become law. Accordingly, when Polish presidents made use their prerogative, they did so with varying frequency and varying degrees of success (see Table 1 below).

Interestingly, the first three Polish presidents (who all experienced longer periods of cohabitation and unified government during their terms) used their powers largely independently of the majority situation in parliament and government. For Lech Walesa, this may largely be explained by the fact that neither the fragmented Sejm, nor the stream of coalition governments had the resources to craft legislation, allowing the president to set the agenda. However, given that less than half of his initiatives were successful, actual implementation of policy can only be part of the reason why he (and his successors) used this power so frequently. On the one hand, we may be able to explain the use of initiatives by presidents’ desire to communicate with voters – more so than ‘reactive powers’ like the veto, legislative initiatives allow presidents to proactively highlight their policy preferences. On the other hand, interviews I conducted with presidential advisors in Poland for my PhD suggest that the presidential legislative initiative can be borne out of cooperation between president and government and provide a shortcut compared to regular parliamentary procedure – presidential bill proposals do not require the same statements or reports from ministries and agencies before they can be discussed (and passed) in parliament. However, the scale of these cases is difficult to ascertain without more detailed knowledge of individual bills.

To date, the use of presidential legislative initiatives outside of presidential systems has hitherto not been subject to much research. Nevertheless, the case of Poland raises a number of interesting questions that go beyond the four European cases mentioned above. First, why would presidents be vested with the power to propose legislation in the first place? Even where they are not formally part of the executive, they are not part of or emanate from the legislature either. Granting presidents proactive legislative prerogatives, particularly in systems where they are not the dominant actor, thus makes little sense. Second, how can we explain the use of this power – especially across varying partisan-political constellations? Furthermore, if bills are more likely to be accepted during friendly/unified relations between president, parliament and government, why would presidents need to propose legislation? After all, their policy preferences should already be implemented. Third, while part of the answer to the last question lies in the publicity potential of the bills, how can we reliably identify those bills that are (informal) collaborations between president and government to circumvent more lengthy parliamentary procedure? The answer to the latter would likely also reveal new information on president-government collaboration in semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Historic presidencies and their legacies – Weimar Germany and the German Democratic Republic

No other date in modern Germany is as laden with significance as 9th November. While two events from the darkest chapters of German history – Hitler’s unsuccessful ‘beer hall putsch’ in 1923 and the Reichspogromnacht (often called ‘the night of broken glass’) in 1938 – took place on this date, the day is also associated with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the proclamation of the first Republic in 1918. In this blog post, I take the recent anniversary of the latter two as the occasion to look more closely at the presidencies of the Weimar Republic and the German Democratic Republic. Political scientists are largely aware of the (powerful) Weimar presidency, not least due to the fact that Maurice Duverger included it as an example of semi-presidentialism in his seminal book and article. However, the fact that the German Democratic Republic likewise had a single-person presidency for the first eleven years of its existence is relatively unknown.

Weimar Republic (1919-1934): The president as an ‘Ersatzkaiser’

The first German president Friedrich Ebert in 1925 / (c) Bundesarchiv

The presidency of the Weimar Republic was the first instance of a non-hereditary head of state in Germany. Thus, the discussions in the constitutional convention focussed among others on the French experience, although it was rather seen as a warning against concentrating too much power in the presidency than genuine inspiration, and other republics. Nevertheless, the convention eventually decided against a collegiate head of state and created a comparatively powerful single-person presidency. In hindsight, it was often seen as too strong and was therefore labelled ‘Ersatzkaiser’ – ‘substitute emperor’. Nevertheless, not all relevant powers are necessarily captured by contemporary approaches to measure presidential power. The president appointed the Reichskanzler (chancellor) and the cabinet ministers, yet these had to step down if the Reichstag (parliament) passed a vote of no-confidence. The constitution clearly gave the chancellor the right to determine the general direction in policy-making, yet presidents also claimed such a right for themselves, especially in foreign and defence policy. The president had no formal veto power (interestingly, the possibility of a particular type of pocket veto existed even then) but could put a bill to a referendum. The president could also dissolve the parliament at any time; however, at least officially this was only possible once for the same reason. Last, the president was able to force individual states to meet their obligations to the federation – even with military force. Shugart and Carey (1992) give the Weimar president an overall score of 16, largely driven by his prerogatives in government formation and dismissal and parliamentary dissolution, which is more than the current Russian presidency (14) but less than the Belarussian one (19).

Package veto Partial veto Decree Excl. intro. Legislation Budgetary powers Referenda TOTAL Cabinet formation Cabinet dismissal Censure Dissolution TOTAL
0 0 2 0 0 2 4 4 4 0 4 12

The election of the presidency contained a number of additional notable quirks. The first president Friedrich Ebert (Social Democrats) was still elected by the constitutional convention for a seven year term; the following two contests were held by popular vote. Thereby, a candidate needed to win an absolute majority in the first round of voting or, failing that, a relative majority in the second round. The second round was however not a run-off – any candidates from the first round could run again and even new candidates could be proposed. In fact, the second president, Paul von Hindenburg, did not compete in the first round of the 1925 election but was only a nominated by the national-conservative ‘Reichsblock’ after its initial candidate was considered not to be sufficiently appealing to beat out a popular opponent. Contrary to most modern semi-presidential systems, the Reichstag also had the right to initiate a recall referendum to dispose of the president (requiring an absolute 2/3 majority of deputies). However, if the recall failed, the Reichstag was to be dissolved and the president considered elected for another seven year-term.

The presidency of the GDR

Portrait of GDR president Wilhelm Pieck on a wallhanging commemorating 10 years of the GDR / (c) LEMO

In October 1949, a little less than five months after the establishment of the (West) German Federal Republic, the German Democratic Republic was founded and enacted a new parliamentary constitution that had already been drafted a year earlier. The GDR was a real-socialist people’s republic and thus naturally not a democracy. However, looking at its institutional structure is nonetheless interesting as it diverges from other countries of the Eastern bloc. In particular, until 1960 it was organised as an archetypical parliamentary democracy and surprisingly similar to its new West German counterpart. The president was elected indirectly by the Volkskammer (people’s chamber – lower house) and the Länder Chamber (states’ chamber – upper house) for a four year-term. Only a relative majority was necessary to elect the president, yet an absolute 2/3 majority in both chambers was needed to recall the president. The president appointed members of the government, yet the constitution stipulated that the largest party group in the lower house nominated the minister-president (prime minister), that each party group of at least 40 MPs was part of the government, and that parliament confirmed the government before it took office. The president had no right to veto legislation; however, he was allowed to voice concerns over the constitutionality of acts and ask the lower chamber’s constitutional commission to investigate these concerns. The president could also not dissolve parliament – the constitution only allowed for self-dissolution (or automatic dissolution in case parliament passed a vote of no-confidence in a new government). The fact that all acts of the president required the countersignature of the prime minister or the respective cabinet minister furthermore highlights the presidency’s subordinate position. Thus, when we apply Shugart and Carey’s (1992) scheme to measure presidential power, we only arrive at a score of just 1 (thanks to the stipulation on a constructive vote of no-confidence).

Package veto Partial veto Decree Excl. intro. Legislation Budgetary powers Referenda TOTAL Cabinet formation Cabinet dismissal Censure Dissolution TOTAL
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1

The legacy of historic presidencies

After the death of Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, Adolf Hitler as Reichskanzler became acting chancellor and merged the functions of chancellor and president – a move confirmed shortly after in an only moderately democratic referendum. The office was only revived for three weeks when Karl Dönitz took over the office after Hitler’s suicide until the German surrender and then ceased to exist. In the GDR, the office of president was similarly abolished with the death of its officeholder – after Wilhelm Pieck, who had held the position of president since 1949, died in 1960, the presidency was transformed into the ‘Staatsrat’ (State Council). The State Council still had a president who acted as de-facto head of state and head of the executive, but it was legally a collegiate organ. Although there were plans to revive the presidency of the GDR after the fall of the Berlin wall, this never happened due to Germany’s reunification in 1990.

The legacy of the Weimar presidency is much stronger, although it largely served as a negative example. During the West German constitutional convention, delegates quickly agreed that the strong and popularly elected presidency of the Weimar republic had been one of its greatest problems. Consequently, they created a weak, indirectly elected office, and placed responsibility for governance in the hands of the chancellor. Even today, calls for the introduction of popular presidential elections are regularly answered by referring to the Weimar experience and the dangers of populism (as such, arguments often resemble Juan Linz’ ‘Perils of presidentialism’). German presidents are now rarely called upon to provide political (rather than moral) leadership; yet, the Weimar experience and reflections at the constitutional convention continue to influence the way in which incumbents interpret and perform their role as head of state.

Portugal – On the presidential use of veto powers

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has just entered the second half of his five-year term in office, providing us with the opportunity to review the way in which he has used his powers to define a specific role for the presidency. In this piece, my attention will be centred on the use of veto powers.

Veto powers are generally associated with the “pouvoir d’empêcher”, that is, the power to limit the action of the government or of its parliamentary support basis. As such, it is often assumed that its use reflects an opposition between the president and the government or the parliamentary majority. However, the political use of veto powers is somewhat more complex than this simple assertion[1]. In order to grasp the full extent of this power and its political implications, one ought to begin by reviewing the pertinent constitutional provisions.

The Portuguese Constitution of 1976, revised in the definition of presidential competences in 1982, determines in section 136 that presidents have the power to promulgate or veto legislation emanating from the government (decree-laws) or parliament (laws). In the case of decree-laws, the presidential veto is final, although the government may decide to reintroduce the same issue by means of a law voted in parliament. By contrast, vetoes applied to parliamentary laws can be superseded if some requirements are met: as a general rule, parliament must approve the vetoed bill by an absolute majority of MPs; in the case of “organic laws” (i.e., designed to lay the foundations for strategic decisions, such as the organic law of the National Health Service), external relations, limits to economic sectors (private, public, co-operative), or electoral matters, then a 2/3rds majority is required. Sections 278 and 279 deal with the possibility of presidents requesting the Constitutional Court for a decision on the constitutional conformity of any piece of legislation. If deemed unconstitutional (even if only in a specific section), then the president must veto such bill on these grounds. In this instance, the law is returned to parliament and it is either rectified by simple majority or ratified by a majority of 2/3rds of MPs (the president being obliged to sign it if ratified).

This constitutional framework should now be read in political terms. For instance: it is clear that minority governments tend to use decree-laws in order to circumvent the need for an absolute majority in the House, and seldom use the facility of transforming the legislative rule into a parliamentary law. By contrast, calling for the intervention of the Constitutional Court gives presidents an opportunity to request a 2/3rds majority which is not necessarily easy to obtain, and thus represent a very strong power of opposition. Finally, the constitutional framework does not prevent presidents from informally returning legislative acts without a formal veto assuming the prime minister will introduce some changes deemed necessary to obtain presidential agreement. All these instances suggest that the use of veto powers has a strong political nature, and that choices are present when a disagreement emerges between the president and the authors of the legislative act. Presidents may opt for stronger or softer ways to deal with such disagreements

In a recent and thorough study of the relations between Portuguese presidents and governments, Vasco Franco proposed a classification of the different circumstances in which veto power is exercised [2]. Franco proposes two ways to look at presidential vetoes. First, he suggests that vetoes may fall in three categories:

a) “constitutional” or “juridical” (when they are supported by a declaration of the Constitutional Court);

b) “political”, when it is (i) freely exercised by the president; (ii) not on grounds of constitutional non-conformity; (iii) based on an appreciation of the contents and/or the opportunity of the legislative initiative; and (iv) accompanied by a written message to the parliament or the government; and

c) “transitional” which takes place when a president actually vetoes legislation that is pending at the time of the election of a new parliament, or the appointment of a new government – in which case there is no judgement as to the merits but only to the opportunity of the acts. Although this could be considered as a form of “political veto”, it ought to be distinguished because presidents who use them – and there are plenty of examples[3]– do not necessarily pass a negative judgement on the essence of the legislative act, but rather a willingness not to limit the options of the newcomers.

In addition, Franco considers the meaning or sense of the veto, having as a reference the interests of the government. Presidential vetoes on acts emanating from parliament can thus be considered as

(i) “cooperative” in cases where a different majority was formed to approve the bill in opposition to the parliamentary basis of the government – a circumstance that may occur when the country has a minority government;

(ii) “neutral” when the veto “is irrelevant vis-à-vis the interest of the government”; and

(iii) “conflictual, when the president uses his power to oppose directly the interests of the government.

This sort of classification is important, as it defies the simple reading of veto powers as a manifestation of opposition between the president and the government. In political terms, the constitutional competence can have different readings

Turning now to President Marcelo’s two and a half years in office, the most significant aspect of his use of the veto power is that so far he has never asked the Constitutional Court for advice (both in advance of vetoing a law, or subsequently, as was often the case before him). Two reasons may explain this behaviour. Firstly, Marcelo is a professor of constitutional law, and therefore he feels very comfortable with his own reading of the problems involved in the appreciation of each bill. Self-confidence is thus a critical element to be born in mind. Secondly, the current government and parliamentary majority seem to have been careful in avoiding the course of action pursued by its predecessors, which turned the Constitutional Court into a central political player in the years 2011-2015.

Be that as it may, President Marcelo vetoed 10 bills in the last 30 months. In all instances, he issued  a “political veto”. By doing this, he offered the current government and political majority ample room to introduce changes that allowed them to overcome the presidential veto without the need of a 2/3rds majority. Nine of those ten bills have subsequently been approved after the introductions of changes suggested by the president without the need to negotiate with the opposition. This is a highly significant political stance which highlights the willingness of Marcelo to distance himself from the government on issues where he disagrees with the current majority and is closer to the values of the centre-right politics of the original political family that he respects (such as the bill on surrogate mothers or the framework for political parties’ financing) without attacking the government by trying to use “constitutional” vetoes. At the same time, he captures a centrality in the political process that had moved away from the presidency to the Constitutional Court in the years before his term.

Apart from the ten formal vetoes, by August 2018, Marcelo had returned 18 bills to the prime minister – but none to parliament. Those bills seem to have remained in a kind of limbo, as the government does not seem to have found ways to sidestep the objections of the president. Again, this form of behaviour is destined to lower potential tension between president and prime minister, and is in line with the fact that Marcelo has so far refrained from using the mechanism of a “constitutional” veto.

Many voices on the right of the political spectrum, including several in the party to which Marcelo still belongs and of which he was leader from 1996-1999, complain bitterly that he does not join in the condemnation of the left-wing government’s strategic options. However, Marcelo’s stance is the one that better suits the political culture that grants presidents with a “moderating power” and does not view them as party-based elements in the parliamentary game – a stance that was forged during Mário Soares and Jorge Sampaio terms with public applause. The very high rates of popularity of Marcelo indicate that this stance has been equally well received by the Portuguese, the consequence of which is the enlarged room for presidential intervention. Veto powers used with discretion may not be, after all, a symbol of political clashes but rather a means to implement some sort of co-governance.

Notes

[1]For a subtle discussion of veto powers as a symbol of political opposition, see Paulo José Canelas Rapaz, “O ‘veto politico’ do Presidente da República Portuguesa (1986-2013): uso e variáveis políticas”, in António Costa Pinto & Paulo José Canelas Rapaz (eds), Presidentes e (Semi)presidencialismo nas Democracias Modernas. Lisboa, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais,2017: 193-216

[2]Vasco Seixas Duarte Franco, Semipresidencialismo em Portugal: poderes presidenciais e interacção com o governo (1982-2016). PhD dissertation in Political Science, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2018

[3]President Ramalho Eanes used this form of veto on 32 cases that were pending in 1985 when prime minister Mário Soares was replaced by Cavaco Silva; President Sampaio used this in 18 instances in 2002 when prime minister Guterres was replaced by Durão Barroso; and again 33 times when prime minister Santana Lopes was replaced by Socrates

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.

Jessica Fortin-Rittberger – Strong Presidents for Weak Post-communist States

This is a guest post by Jessica Fortin-Rittberger, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Salzburg. It is based on a chapter entitled  “Strong Presidents for Weak States. How Weak State Capacity fosters Vertically Concentrated Executives” in Philipp Harfst, Ina Kubbe, Thomas Poguntke (eds.) Parties, Governments and Elites: The Comparative Study of Democracy, Springer series in comparative politics.

The link between institutions and democratic survival is at the heart of a vibrant scholarly exchange, debating the virtues and perils of parliamentary and presidential systems. Presidentialism in Latin America, but also in former Soviet republics, correlates strongly with authoritarianism. But what if this correlation is an artefact? What if it is rooted in a constellation of conditions that predate the choice of institutions? In other words, are presidential institutions shallow causes of democratic consolidation? In a newly published paper, I argue that the conditions under which different types of executives are chosen following regime transitions are indeed a key to the puzzle. I propose an explanation that suggests that the intrinsic features of presidential systems are less relevant than the conditions that facilitate the installation of vertically-concentrated executive power.

I focus on a specific form of context: infrastructural state capacity understood as “the institutional capacity of a central state, despotic or not, to penetrate its territories and logistically implement decisions” (Mann 1993: 59). Many of the new states that were born after the 18th century, and especially after World War II, were not consolidated and suffered from limited infrastructural capacity. Interestingly, many of these new states also emerged with vertically-concentrated presidential arrangements: I do not think this is a coincidence. In situations where infrastructural state capacity is most deficient, the vertical concentration of executive power in the hands of a few players becomes more likely.

To look into this relationship, I examined 26 post-communist countries over the period between 1989 and 2009. This set of countries is an ideal testing ground to probe this relationship, since the environment of state capacity is temporally prior to the selection of institutions. Most new constitutions were established in a time period ranging from a few months (Hungary) to up to five years (Ukraine) after the collapse of communism. To capture the level of power concentration in the hands of the executive, I employed two indicators. Table 1 presents the scores of both indicators in the year of the first post-communist constitution. The first encapsulates the formal level of power concentration from Frye, Hellman and Tucker’s Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World (2000). In this measurement, powers of popularly elected presidents are scored from (1) to (21), where (1) represents the weakest presidents in terms of constitutional provisions, and (21) the presidents endowed with the most prerogatives. The second indicator taps into informal practices. I used the item called “constraints on chief executive” from the Polity IV dataset (Marshall and Jaggers, 2012). This measures the operational (de facto) independence of the chief executive in relations to other players. The categories range from (1) where the chief executive has unlimited authority, through (7) where the chief executive is at parity or subordination to other institutional players (legislative assembly, prime minister, constitutional court). Harnessing both formal and informal aspects of executive power allows me to grasp the phenomenon of power concentration in an encompassing fashion.

The analyses provide unambiguous support for my core argument that state capacity is crucial to establish executive dominance over other institutional players. State capacity at the onset of independence (or transition) helps to explain the level of executive power concentration in the newly designed constitutions. This means that in environments with weak infrastructural state capacity it is easier for politicians aiming to secure state power or to access to the state’s power resources to push for the adoption of strong, vertical forms of executive power. Once in place, these power structures have proven quite durable, although some countries have recently enacted reforms to curb executive power, at least on paper. This also helps explain why the record of presidentialism has been so dire in the region; it is not the institution of a president per se that is harmful to democracy, rather the extent to which power is concentrated.

Even though I find these strong relationships in my research, there are some important caveats. Many of these institutional setups are static over time, hence my models face difficulties to explain recent occurrences of executive power concentration that were accompanied with democratic backsliding. Turkey is a case in point, where we can observe the demise of a democracy in a brazen power grab at the hands of a leader seeking to establish a presidential vertical. Yet, the state was not weak at that point. Hungary is another example, with the authoritarian tendencies of its government, and Prime Minister, to curtail political rights and freedoms, as well as dilute institutional checks and balances. Hungary is particularly problematic for my argument, since it should have been a least likely candidate for such a reversal.

A strong state is therefore no guarantee against executives engaging in power grabs; a weak state simply makes it easier.

Works cited:

Frye, T., Hellmann, J. S. & Tucker, J. 2000. Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World, unpublished, Columbia University.

Mann, M. 1993. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, M. G. & Jaggers, K. 2012. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2012. The Polity IV dataset

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.

Henry E. Hale – Presidential Power in Ukraine: Constitutions Matter

This is a guest post by Henry E. Hale, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at George Washington University

Some observers argue Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been determined to concentrate power in his own hands ever since his May 2014 election and has either failed or not seriously tried to eliminate high-level corruption. Yet nearing the end of his third year in office, he clearly lags far behind where his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, was three years into his presidency. Indeed, Ukraine in 2017 remains a much more politically open place than it was in 2013. Why has this been the case?

While leadership styles are clearly part of the story, there is a strong argument to be made that constitutional design is an important part of the explanation. When Yanukovych first came to power, he used his fresh mandate not only to get his own person installed as prime minister (something Poroshenko also achieved) but to establish a strongly presidentialist constitution, one that signaled his clear dominance over the parliament and all other formal institutions. This signaled to Ukraine’s most potent oligarchs and other power networks that Yanukovych was the unquestioned dominant authority and complicated their efforts to challenge him; even if his opponents had managed to win the 2012 parliamentary elections, which they did not, even this position would not have put them in a position to significantly limit presidential power.

Poroshenko’s election, on the other hand, emerged partly out of the discrediting of that very presidentialist model, which with the rise of the Euromaidan came to be blamed for fostering overweening presidential power and its use of brutal force against its own people. Indeed, one of the first moves of the victorious revolutionaries, weeks before Poroshenko’s election, was to restore the constitution that had been in place prior to Yanukovych’s 2010 election. This constitution establishes a division of executive power between the president and a prime minister who is primarily beholden to parliament. Thus while Poroshenko surely would have liked to have more formal power, he was not in position to capitalize on his election win to call for a newly presidentialist constitution.

As a result, Poroshenko’s efforts to augment his own power have been limited by a constitution that leads the country’s political forces to see him as not necessarily the dominant power. While the parliament did vote to confirm his preferred prime minister, his parliamentary majority is at best fragile and does not represent a strong control over parliament, and there is a strong likelihood he could lose control of the next parliament given current patterns of public support. With parliament (and by implication the prime ministership) a major prize, Poroshenko’s opponents thus find it easier to envision a successful move against him even if they cannot capture the presidency itself. And this leads others to be more cautious about placing all their political and economic eggs in Poroshenko’s basket, which further limits his authority in the country.

My sense, therefore, is that Ukraine’s being more democratic about three years after Poroshenko than it was three years after Yanukovych is more about constitutions than about presidential beliefs or capabilities–even in a country like Ukraine, where the rule of law is weak and people frequently question whether constitutions matter at all.

Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis Jett – Pricing US Ambassadorial Postings: how much would you have to pay to be posted as US ambassador to the Court of St. James?

This is a guest post by Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis Jett from Pennsylvania State University. It is based on their recent article in Governance.

US ambassadorial postings are unusual. Unlike other major powers, a significant proportion of US ambassadors are political appointees rather than career diplomats. Political appointees, chosen by the White House rather than the State Department, are non-randomly distributed across diplomatic posts, being most common in Western European and Caribbean countries.  They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they have in common the fact that in some way they helped the president get elected. The largest number do that that through campaign contributions, but others do it by bringing diversity to the ranks of appointees, for some other political purpose, by being personal friends or serving as loyal staff aides to the president. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but one is usually predominant.

In a recent paper,[1] we explore the why and the how of the US ambassadorial appointments process.

Patronage utility frameworks provide plausible explanations of “why” donors and special interest group representatives are chosen for ambassadorships, and we examine two possibilities: all-pay auctions and alternating offer bargaining games.

Since a political appointment to a diplomatic post provides a rent to the recipient, one analytical approach to the contest for the posting is provided by all-pay auctions, in which all bidders pay for the prize regardless of whether their bid proves successful or not. As an alternative to the strategic interaction by means of auction, which does not allow for negotiation over the prize or its value, the strategic interaction between the donor and presidential candidates can also be thought of as a multiperiod alternating offer bargaining game.

Under plausible and readily specifiable conditions, the implication of both frameworks is symmetrical: donors get what they pay for, with low donations eliciting low quality posting offers, high donations high quality posting offers. The immediate empirical prediction is that higher campaign donations should be matched by better quality diplomatic postings.

So why are both theoretical frameworks of relevance?

Direct reliance on bargaining over donations and posts would constitute a violation of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. On the other hand, under all-pay auctions, the expectation is that donors would pay the full underlying valuation of diplomatic posts. Empirically this is not universally true, with both over- and underpayment for posts observable. This can be more readily accounted for in terms of a bargaining framework, with donor and candidate having varying bargaining strengths from case to case. Reality is likely a messy and complex result of both of these processes.

In our paper, we test the proposition that higher donations will be associated with better postings, and extend the analysis to provide a “pricing” of posts in terms of their underlying characteristics.

Our data covers ambassadorial appointments to all countries with whom the United States has diplomatic relations, a total of 170 countries, for both terms of the G.W.Bush presidency, and both terms of the Obama presidency, through 2013. The data covers 13 years of ambassadorial appointments, generating 764 data points. We measure the desirability of diplomatic posts by means of per capita GDP (GDPPC), its attractiveness as a tourist destination (measured as the number of tourist visits), and the level of hardship or danger pay the ambassador receives in a post. We also distinguish between different “types” of donation, directly to presidential campaigns as personal donations, to the political party of the presidential candidate, “bundling” donations by means of which donors act as coordinators for larger groupings of donors to provide financial support to campaigns, as well as “ex post” donations to campaigns (for instance to the inauguration of a successful presidential candidate).

We demonstrate that higher donations to presidential campaigns predict an improved desirability of diplomatic postings for donors, across both the per capita GDP and attractiveness as tourist destination metrics.

Types of donations can also be shown to have a differential impact on the quality of appointment. While donors to political parties realize the highest per capita GDP postings (on average $14,000 higher than career diplomats), while campaign donors realize more moderately improved postings (on average $6,000 higher than career diplomats), in terms of the return on each dollar donated, the highest return is realized by campaign donors. Thus a $100,000 campaign contribution raises the GDP per capita level of the diplomatic posting by $27,000; a $1,000,000 party political donation raises the GDP per capita level of the diplomatic posting by $5,000.

The implication is that donating to the party requires much greater contributions to secure a comparable post to campaign donations, but since there are fewer caps on what can be given to a political party than there are for donations directly to presidential campaigns, there is the opportunity to compete more aggressively for better posts by contributing large amounts to the former.

So how much would you have to pay for a US diplomatic posting? In our paper we explore this question for all feasible posts, and across a range of possible forms of political donations. Here we cut to the chase, and list four of the more up-market options (Berlin, London, Paris, Rome) – see Table below. We list the implied “prices” of the diplomatic posts under either personal campaign contributions to a presidential campaign directly, computed specifically for the first Obama term, or for party political contributions, computed as an average for all four presidential terms in our data set. Both prices are on the per capita GDP metric of country desirability rating.

Should your target post be the Court of St. James, the cheapest option was by means of personal contributions to the first term of the Obama administration (a snip at $1.1 million), the most expensive option via party political donations (on average $4.3 million over the 2000-13 period).

  Personal Contribution
Obama 1st term
GDP per capita metric (US$)
Party Political Contribution
All 4 Presidential Terms
GDP per capita metric (US$)
Berlin 1,170,517 4,514,841
London 1,131,642 4,331,352
Paris 1,089,080 4,140,936
Rome 881,985 3,190,090

Notes

[1] Fedderke, J.W., and Jett, D., 2016, What Price the Court of St. James? Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America, Governance, forthcoming, DOI 10.1111/gove.12254.

Presidential power and the Austrian presidential election

In April 2016, I was asked by the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, to provide some general thoughts on presidents and presidential power in the run up to the first round of the presidential election there. The FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, was expected to do well and I was asked about how the role of the president might change if he won. The article in Die Presse summarised my thoughts and is available in German here. With the re-run run-off election due to be held on 4 December and with the FPÖ likely to win, here is the full transcript of the comments I returned. They seem as relevant now as before except that the traditional situation in Austria is perhaps even more likely to change if Hofer is elected than was envisaged in April. Given the context of the election, if he wins he may wish to flex his presidential powers. Moreover, the presidency itself is also perhaps more likely to be the subject of controversy.

  • Which of the powers of a president have the greatest political significance in your view?

Presidential powers are always dependent upon context, particularly the party political context. For example, the power to dissolve parliament seems like a really important constitutional power. However, if the president’s party is poorly placed to do well at the election or if an election has been held only recently and another election is not going to change the situation, then the power to dissolve the legislature becomes almost a dead power. In effect, the president cannot use it. The same goes for the power to call a referendum. Presidents tend to call referendums when they know they are going to win them. If they are worried that they will lose, then they rarely risk calling one in the first place. So, the power in effect disappears.

Two important powers are the power to appoint and dismiss the PM. The power to appoint the PM seems very important. However, as before, often presidents have little choice. The election may have returned a party or coalition with a legislative majority. The party or coalition is likely to have its own Chancellor candidate. So, the president can often do little more than choose the PM that the parties have already agreed on. Only if there is a very fragmented party system, or if the government collapses and there is no clear alternative PM can the president exercise a personal influence. Clearly, this circumstance can arise, but it usually rare. By contrast, the power to dismiss the PM can be important. This situation can allow the president to take the initiative, especially if the PM is unpopular. The risk is that it brings the president into conflict with the parties in the legislature. Indeed, this power is one that is not recommended for young democracies.

  • Do you agree with the view that the actual power of a president depends on whether he controls (or is able to neutralize) parliament? Is it true that in a semi-presidential regime, a weak parliament is the precondition for a strong president?

Again, the exercise of power is a mix of constitutional powers and political context. France is the classic example here. In 1958 the constitutional powers of parliament were greatly reduced and by the mid-1960s the president was established as the main political leader of the country. So it looks as if a weak parliament was a necessary condition for a strong president. However, in France presidents have tended to be backed by a presidential majority in parliament. This majority has been loyal. The majority has not wanted to use any of parliament’s remaining powers to block the president. Even when the majority has been opposed to the president during periods of cohabitation, power has simply shifted to the prime minister. Parliament has not become any stronger. So, yes, the constitution matters. Parliaments can have more or less powers in that regard. However, the relationship between presidents and parties is equally if not more important. In practice, a weak parliament is often the result of a particular party political context, just as much as if not more so than the constitutional situation itself. Of course, the flip side can occur too. If the party political context is confused, then parliament can become strong, usually viz. the PM and government, though, rather than the president. That said, if parliament uses it power to vote down a government, then the president can be called upon to make a choice about a new government.

  • If you assess the constitutional powers of the Austrian president, could he – given different political circumstances – become as strong an institutional figure as the French president? What would be necessary for this to happen?

Austria is a very unusual case. Iceland is perhaps the only other country like it in terms of the presidency. In both countries, the powers of the president are strong relative to most other semi-presidential countries. For example, the Austria president probably has more constitutional powers than the the French president. The Austrian president can dismiss the PM and government, whereas the French president, according to the constitution at least, cannot. In practice, though, the situations in the two countries are reversed. In Austria, the president is a pure figurehead and has almost always simply executed the decisions that the government and parties have wanted. True, some presidents have been more willing to criticize the government than others, but none has used their powers independently. By contrast, the French president is seen as the leader of the presidential majority in parliament. This means that the president has usually been able to appoint a loyal prime minister who will carry out the president’s wishes with the backing of the majority. As the leader of the majority, the president has also had the de facto power to change the PM even though this is not in the constitution, whereas the Austrian president has not exercised that power, even though it is in the constitution.

For the situation in Austria to change, the political context must change. Up to now, parties have not chosen candidates who are likely to see the presidency as an active institution. This can be seen in the age and profile of previous presidents and presidential candidates. They have tended to be elderly figures, who have often had an important party career in the past but who are no longer senior party decision-making figures. Alternatively, they have been largely independent figures who have been adopted by political parties. In neither case have they had the party political authority to act independently. In this context, it is not surprising that they have been figurehead presidents. Moreover, there is also the historical factor in Austria. This has weighed against the desire for an active presidency. However, the political context can always change. If the president were to come from outside the governing parties, then this could change the situation. The new president might feel that s/he has a mandate to act. Also, if there was now a mood for a more active presidency to address the country’s difficult issues, then a new president might feel justified in using his/her powers.

Let’s go back to the Icelandic case. Here, it was very common to hear that the president’s powers were lost. The president was a pure figurehead. Nothing would change that. Powers would never be used. However, during the financial crash the president vetoed government bills on two occasions, leading to two referendums. Suddenly, the powers that some people had assumed had been lost came back. In fact, they had never gone away. It was just that the political context had changed and now the president was in a position to use them. The context in Austria may change too.

  • Is there any institutional aspect or authority that makes the Austrian president extraordinary in comparison with other European presidents (e.g. the right to freely choose the prime minister?

Other countries have this power. For example, the French president has the power to nominate the PM freely. It is worth noting that in contrast to some countries the Austrian president does not have long list of clearly defined executive powers. If the new president wanted to be more active and if the president was from a party that was not in government, there may be the potential for the constitutional powers of the president and government to be disputed. In this event, the courts might be called upon the interpret the constitution. This has happened previously in countries like Romania and Poland. So, the presidency could become a source of constitutional debate. Again, though, this would require a change of political context.

  • Do you think that directly elected presidents are (ceteris paribus) more powerful/influential than indirectly elected presidents, or are other factors (such as the configuration of the party system or the authority of the office-holders) of greater significance?

Direct election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a strong president. It is true that directly elected presidents tend to be more powerful than indirectly elected ones. For example, the directly elected French and Romanian presidents are more active than the indirectly elected German or Latvian presidents. That said, there are some very weak directly elected presidents. Austria is one case. Ireland and Slovenia are others. There are also times when indirectly elected presidents have been influential in countries like Italy. So, direct election is not a guarantee of power. Moreover, if we look at Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both of which changed their constitution and shifted from an indirectly elected president to a directly elected president, we see that the role of the president scarcely changed pre- and post-direct election. In other words, direct election has not made much difference to the exercise of presidential power in either country.

Again, what matters in the mix of the constitutional situation and the political context. The combination of a directly elected president, an important set of constitutional powers, and a political context where the exercise of those powers is seen as both legitimate and desirable can lead to a very influential president. In practice, that combination of factors has been relatively rare in post-war Europe. France is the obvious case where they have combined on occasions. In most cases, though, even when there has been a directly elected president, then either the president has not enjoyed very many powers, or, more usually, the party political context has not been particularly conducive to the exercise of those powers at least in the long-term.

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.

Literature

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.