José Cheibub – The Constitutional Foundations of Democratic Consolidation (part 1)

This is a guest post by José Cheibub, Boeschenstein Professor of Political Economy and Public Policy in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


In this post, I discuss the role of political institutions in democratic consolidation. Regarding the forms of democratic government, I like to think that there are essentially two: those with a separation of powers and those that require assembly confidence. The first are typical presidential democracies, systems with constitutions that prescribe a fixed term in office for both a popularly and independently elected president and a congress. The second are the parliamentary and semi-presidential democracies, in which the government must be at least tolerated by a parliamentary majority in order to exist.

I will therefore focus on the effect of political institutions, whether parliamentary or presidential, on democratic consolidation. I start by briefly reviewing the earlier debate on the relationship between democratic form of government and consolidation. I then discuss what I see as two challenges we face today to advance the study of democratic consolidation: its proper definition and conceptualization, an to understand how the phenomena of democratic breakdown and consolidation changed since we first started to think about them. I conclude with a few remarks on the kind of advice political scientists can give regarding the best constitutional form for the consolidation of democracy.

The impact of separation of powers or assembly confidence on democratic consolidation is no longer at the center of the democratization research agenda. Probably everyone is familiar with the argument, first developed by Juan Linz, according to which presidential institutions are likely to lead to crises that may ultimately cause the breakdown of democracies.[i] Although Linz offered more than one reason for the observed negative correlation between presidentialism and democracy, most important, in my view, was his argument about incentives for coalition formation. This argument was also the most fully developed in subsequent studies. His reasoning was as follows: presidential institutions fail to generate incentives for cooperation among individual politicians, among parties and between the legislative and executive powers. Because presidentialism provides no incentives for inter-branch cooperation, presidential democracies are characterized by frequent minority governments as well as conflict and deadlocks between the government and the legislature. Because presidential regimes lack a constitutional principle that can be invoked to resolve conflicts between the executive and the legislature, such as the vote of no confidence in parliamentary democracies, minority presidents and deadlock provide incentives for actors to search for extra-constitutional means of resolving differences. As a consequence, presidential democracies become more prone to instability and eventual death.

Thus, according to Linz, presidential institutions are simply not conducive to governments capable of handling the explosive issues that are central to the new democracies in the developing world. These issues make governing difficult under any circumstances. Governing becomes almost impossible when the institutional setup is likely to generate governments with weak legislative support as well as parties and politicians whose dominant strategy is to act independently from one another. Given the lack of constitutional solutions to the crises that are almost inevitable in these countries, political actors have no choice but to appeal to those with the means to resolve their differences, even if at the price of democracy itself.

Here is not the place for rehashing the debate around these ideas. Let me simply say that Juan Linz’s view of the negative impact of presidentialism on democratization was critically examined along two main lines. The first focused on the fact that parliamentary democracies were not altogether immune to the institutional crises that were supposed to characterize presidential ones. The second sought to show that the sequence of events that would lead to the breakdown of presidential democracies did not materialize with the frequency implied by the argument. Consequently, if the relationship between presidentialism and democratic breakdown is causal, the mechanism might not be the one postulated by Linz.

Of course, the discussion around the “perils of presidentialism” did not represent the last word in the debate about the impact of forms of government on democratic consolidation. This question still generates considerable interest, as it should. The correlation between presidential institutions and democratic breakdown is still a reality and hence the intuitive arguments that have been made connecting the two still resonate. But to move forward it may be helpful to address some unresolved issues while recognizing how the political reality has changed since Linz’s theory was formulated. Even though not a long time has passed since that moment, it is fair to say that the features of many of the cases we are confronted with today are quite different from the ones confronted by Linz.

The original argument about the detrimental effects of presidentialism for democratic consolidation must be understood in the context of the virtual disappearance of democracy from Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1960 and 1975, almost every Latin American country experienced a democratic breakdown. Most of these democracies collapsed in the hands of the military, who inaugurated what O’Donnell called a new type of dictatorship – the bureaucratic-authoritarian regime. As a matter of fact, during the Cold War, the vast majority of democracies collapsed as the result of a military coup, in a pattern that, at least superficially, corroborated Linz’s view of a conflict between a fixed-term executive who did not have the support of a majority in congress.

Democratic breakdown happens nowadays in a very different way. Institutionalized militaries cannot be counted on to intervene into politics and take the reins of government from the hands of civilian politicians. If democracies fail to consolidate today, authoritarian regimes that replace them are more likely to be led by civilians, often the elected incumbent who, by a process of overt and covert manipulation, progressively removes the conditions necessary for competitive elections to occur in the future. To use the terminology employed by Adam Przeworski and his co-authors,[ii] transitions to authoritarianism after the Cold War are more likely to be “from above” and occur at the hands of the incumbent. They are likely to violate two of the three conditions which the above mentioned authors identified as necessary for a democracy to exist: “ex ante uncertainty,” namely, the requirement that electoral outcomes are not pre-determined, and “repeatability,” that is, the requirement that democratic incumbents hold competitive elections such as the ones that brought them into office.[iii]

Thus, if it is true that there is a correlation between presidentialism and the recent failures of democratic consolidation (something that has not been established yet, as far as I know), and if it is true that these episodes of failure rarely if at all involve a military coup, we need to formulate new explanatory hypotheses. What is it about presidentialism that may lead to the entrenchment of incumbents in power? Conversely, which characteristics of parliamentary institutions might prevent such entrenchment?

To be continued.

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow

[i] Juan J. Linz, “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does It Make a Difference?” in Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy: The Case of Latin America, edited by (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

[ii] Adam Przeworski, Michael E. Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[iii] The one that is not violated is “ex post certainty,” namely the assurance that whoever wins the election will take office. Note that the “alternation” rule introduced by Przeworski et al. to operationalize the three conditions of democracy speaks directly to the problems related to the measurement of incumbent-caused subversions of democracy.

A longer version of this post first appeared in the APSA Comparative Democratization newsletter, vol. 12, no. 2, May 2014

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