Tag Archives: Speeches

Latin American Presidents and International Capital

Although events in Argentina have grabbed international headlines and in Venezuela, the president of the Assembly (and one of his bodyguards) have become embroiled in allegations about a narco-trafficking ring, I have decided to return to something I discussed last year (and once again engage in some self-promotion – sorry).

As I told you in that post, with two colleagues, Christian Arnold and Nina Wiesehomeier, I have been working on a project that is using the annual addresses of Latin American presidents as data in order to derive some comparative understanding of executive politics across the region.

Every year, Latin American presidents make a speech to the national assembly (akin to the US State-of-the-Address). This is an institutionalized event, where the president is constitutionally obliged to make this speech at an appointed time each year and report on the initiatives of the executive over the last year, and the proposed agenda for the year ahead. We have been interested in who the president is primarily speaking to when they make these speeches, and we suggest there are two audiences: the legislature and the international economy.

We have collected speeches for 68 presidents across thirteen Latin American countries between the years 1980 and 2014 and have employed computational models, based on the scaling algorithm Wordfish, to scale these speeches (relative to each other within each country).[1] The first part our project was interested in the institutional incentives the president may have to move in the policy space, and our research has indicated that this seems to be largely driven by the legislative support of the president and their executive power.

Right now, we have been exploring the effect of international market pressures on the positions that presidents take. Latin American countries face significant pressures from international capital, be it in the form of the IMF, banks or bonds and presidents have switched their policy orientation in response to exchange market crises.[2] We are interested in the effect that international capital has on the behavior of the president. Specifically, does the president change their revealed policy stance on economic policy in response to the preferences of capital? And if so, what effect does this have?

To explore this, we have developed an automated method of extracting the portion of the speech where the president discusses all matters related to the economy. We then re-scale this economic dimension only, with the method I briefly described above. This gives us a reasonable approximation of the economic policy position of each Latin American president (in our thirteen countries) in a given year. Below, you can see two graphs combining the general overall position of presidents, and their economic position, in two different countries. Unsurprisingly, in Venezuela, the economic position is closely related to the overall position. This is what we might expect, given the main political cleavage in Venezuela at the moment probably runs along an economic (redistributive/statist vs. market) dimension. In Colombia, the economic position is less important for the overall position of presidents. Again, this is what we might expect, given the importance of security-related issues for politics in Colombia. compare_econ_ven compare_econ_col

With these measures, we have done some basic analyses to see what shapes the economic positions that presidents assume. Unsurprisingly, presidents in Latin America are highly responsive to international capital. When under IMF programs, presidents assume a position on the right. The higher the level of bank or bond debt, the further right the political position (although this effect is greater for bank debt). And when there is a currency crisis, presidents move to the right, and do so sharply. We interpret all of this as a signaling game, whereby presidents will adopt economic positions favorable to capital when they are in desperate need of short-term inflows of finance (crises); or when they believe doing so might create some space (from banks and the IMF) to pursue policies more amenable to their electorate.

Of course, all of this is all very tentative. Any thoughts or suggestions would be very welcome!

[1] More detail on Wordfish can be found here.

[2] Some excellent recent research has explored this. See Stephen B. Kaplan 2013. Globalization and Austerity Politics in Latin America. Cambridge University Press or Daniela Campello 2015. The Politics of Market Discipline in Latin America: Globalization and Democracy. Cambridge University Press or Erik Wibbels. 2006. “Dependency Revisited: International Markets, Business Cycles and Social Spending in the Developing World,” International Organization (Spring 2006): 433-69.



Germany – A muzzle for the president? President Gauck and the limits of freedom of speech(es)

The election of Joachim Gauck’s election as Germany’s 11th Federal President was a novelty in many respects. Gauck was not only the first president from the former German Democratic Republic, but also the first non-partisan to ascend to the Germany’s highest office. Gauck himself promised to be ‘an uncomfortable president’ who would voice his opinion more often even if it contradicted the policies of the government or went counter to prevailing public opinion. His remarks towards the far-right were welcomed by public and politicians alike. Yet Gauck’s calls for the need for greater German military involvement abroad and criticism of the possibility of a leftist politician being elected minister-president of Thuringia have been met with opposition. Now coalition politicians are reportedly seeking ways to ‘muzzle’ the ‘uncomfortable president’.

Joachim Gauck during his speech after being elected president | photo via bundespraesident.de | © Jesco Denzel / Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

The powers of the German presidency are generally very limited and the role of its incumbents is thus largely ceremonial with very little potential for independent political action. One of the few opportunities for German presidents to influence politics are their speeches and interviews and most office-holders to date have through these been able to install themselves as a ‘moral compass’ in the public debate. Due to his work as a Lutheran pastor, opposition activist and Federal Commissioner for dealing with the records of the Stasi (the secret police of the German Democratic Republic) during the 90s as well as his oratory skills incumbent president Joachim Gauck had been established as a notable public figure even before his election and received overwhelming public support for his candidacies (his first one was unsuccessful) for the country’s highest office. Since his inauguration in March 2012, several of Gauck’s speeches have been met with acclaim (also internationally, e.g. his speech on European integration), just like his clear stance against the extremist far-right. In the latter case, the German Constitutional Court even confirmed that Gauck was allowed to label members and followers of the extremist far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) ‘nutcases’ and had the right to free expression as long as he does not ‘take sides in an arbitrary manner’.

Despite Gauck’s general popularity, German politicians have recently criticised Gauck for overstepping his constitutionally prescribed role. In the first instance, this was due to his speech at the Munich Security Conference in January this year in which he called for greater German military engagement abroad. The German president does not even possess ceremonial powers with regard to the military or foreign policy and elites were thus unhappy with his remarks. The government was also not pleased with Gauck’s interpellations in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis (among others, Gauck accussed Russian president Vladimir Putin of breaking international law) and had to employ great diplomatic effort to keep open a channel of communication with the Russian leadership. It should be mentioned Gauck’s remarks were also unusual for other reasons. The German public is not only traditionally wary having their troops deployed abroad, but Gauck’s pre-predecessor Horst Köhler resigned after he felt unduly criticised for declaring that German military deployments abroad (which are usually labelled as ‘humanitarian’ in the German discourse) also served to secure the country’s economic interests.

President Gauck was faced with second wave of criticism when he told journalists that he would be ‘uncomfortable’ with seeing leftist politician Bodo Ramelow’s being elected as minister-president of the German state of Thuringia. While his remarks were generally less surprising, they too meant means that Gauck entered (politically) uncharted waters. Ramelow is local leader of ‘Die LINKE’ (“The Left”) a successor party to the United Socialist Party (SED) – the GDR’s party of power. While ‘Die LINKE’ has participated in a number of coalition governments in the East German states (and even tolerated a Social Democrat-Green minority government in the West), it has never nominated the minister-president. Given Gauck’s role in the GDR opposition movement – among others he was co-founder of the ‘New Forum’ opposition movement – and his work as Federal Commissioner for dealing with records of the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police) 1990-2000, his criticism of LINKE-led government is understandable. Nevertheless, it is the first time in German post-unification (potentially even post-war) history that a president has taken a public stance on the political situation in one of the 16 German states.

It is thus not a coincidence that it was revealed last week that Peter Gauweiler, a prominent member of parliament for the Christian Social Union (CSU; currently in government), commissioned the parliamentary research service to draft a legal opinion on ‘the competence of the president to make foreign policy statements’ (as Gauweiler’s CSU is fiercely opposed to ‘Die LINKE’, the focus on foreign policy alone is not surprising). The paper, which was leaked to a number of newspapers, clearly states that the president was not allowed to conduct an ‘alternative foreign policy’ and can be required to closely coordinate the content of public statements. While this describes the existing political practice (the general content of speeches is coordinated with the respective government ministries and the Chancellor’s office), the paper seems to open the possibility for a word-by-word coordination which would significantly reduce the presidents ability to influence political and public debates. Nevertheless, the opinion also tends towards rejecting a requirement for countersignature for speeches. While the vast majority of presidential decisions and actions is already subject to countersignature, the currently dominant opinion in legal scholarship argues against it.

It is unlikely that the government of parliamentary majority will initiate any steps towards formally restricting Gauck’s ability to make public statements. Nevertheless, the debate and the fact that the criticism has shifted from the fringes of the political spectrum (radical right and radical left) to mainstream parties should be food for thought for Gauck. While it is unclear whether he wants to seek re-election once his term ends in 2017 (he will be 77 years old by then), he might need be a more ‘comfortable’ president in any case to make sure that his words do not fall on deaf ears among those who can turn them into actions.

Using Presidential Speeches in Latin America as Data

A few weeks ago on the pages of this blog, Phillip discussed the general trends that can be observed in the inaugural speeches of Presidents in Central and Eastern Europe. His post indicated the value of executive speeches as a potential source of comparative data. Presidents make speeches all the time and in these speeches, they often discuss policies, agendas and future legislative plans.

So I thought that this would be a good opportunity for some shameless self-promotion. With two colleagues, Christian Arnold and Nina Wiesehomeier, I have been working on a project that is using the annual addresses of Latin American presidents as data in order to derive some comparative understanding of executive politics across the region.

Every year, similar to the state-of-the-union speech in the United States, Latin American presidents make a speech to the national assembly. This is an institutionalized event, where the president is constitutionally obliged to make this speech at an appointed time each year and report on the initiatives of the executive over the last year, and the proposed agenda for the year ahead (an example of Dilma’s 2014 speech in Brazil can be found here). Although public interest in this speech varies across the region, there is one constant audience: the legislature. As such, this is a unique opportunity to comparatively explore this speech across countries, which we interpret as primarily a signal to the country’s legislators.

After a rather intensive and somewhat exhausting data collection effort, we managed to collect annual state-of-the-union addresses for 68 presidents across thirteen Latin American countries between the years 1980 and 2014 (we tried to begin with the year of the most recent wave of re-democratization in each case). We then employed computational models, based on the scaling algorithm Wordfish, to scale these speeches (relative to each other within each country).[1] We ended up with a policy position on the main dimension of political competition (i.e. whatever the major underlying issue cleavage is in that country) for each president and for each year. An example for Brazil can be found below.


Given national political and ideological contexts vary so widely across the region, we are unable to compare the absolute policy position of these presidents. We can however, compare their relative movement between one year and the next. For example, see the case of Brazil below.


This data can help us to understand the dynamics of executive-legislative relations in Latin America. We explored under what conditions presidents are more likely to signal their willingness to compromise and whether this has an effect on their rate of executive legislative success. Contrary to the somewhat pessimistic Linzian interpretation of Latin American politics (and in line with the wave of research on coalitional politics across the region), we are able to demonstrate with this data that presidents use speeches as a means to strategically signal policy concessions to coalition partners and the legislature more generally. The degree to which they are willing to do this is intrinsically linked to the dynamics of interbranch competition in Latin American presidential systems and will depend on a combination of the coalition status of the executive’s party and the legislative powers granted to the president. Latin American presidents will often compromise or alter their position in the policy space from one year to the next and this movement will subsequently have an effect on their rate of legislative success.

The upshot: these speeches are not just hot air. They are strategic signals of policy intent and compromise, which the president may use to ensure the success of their legislative agenda.

Our project website can be found here.

[1] More detail on Wordfish can be found here.