José Cheibub – The Constitutional Foundations of Democratic Consolidation

From the archives

This is the consolidated version of two guest posts 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?

One thing is sure, namely, that the Linzian approach to these questions will not take us far. The reason is that this approach is focused on the problem of legislative support for the executive, that is, on how parliamentarism virtually assures that such support is present, and (multiparty) presidentialism virtually assures that it will be lacking. However, some of the contemporary cases suggest the opposite: democracy may be “saved” by the fact that the government does not have strong support in the legislature and it may be threatened in situations when the executive enjoys sufficient backing of the legislature to shut off the opposition.

Take a few recent examples. In Slovakia, Vladimír Mečiar was hampered in his authoritarian ambitions by repeated defections from his coalition, which eventually resulted in a vote of no-confidence in 1994 and the failure to form governments in 1998. This happened in spite of Mečiar’s control of a plurality of legislative seats. In Hungary, on the other hand, the overwhelming legislative support for Prime Minister Victor Orbán allowed him and his party to introduce changes that are widely seen as non-democratic. Similarly, as Sebastian Saiegh shows using an example of the fall of Bolivian president Sánchez Lozada in 2003,[iv] the danger for democratic consolidation posed by an unconstitutional transfer of power should be attributed to situations which are in their nature opposite to deadlocks. As Saiegh suggests, in some circumstances the government may actually govern too much. Consequently, what threatens democracy is not so much that there is a deadlock between a constitutionally irremovable president and legislature but the fact that the two are aligned and can change the status quo in a direction that may suit their interests but not those of democracy. Deadlocks and minority governments may be precisely what save democracy from being suffocated by aspiring autocrats. If this conclusion reminds the reader of Madison and his view about separation of powers, it is not a mere coincidence.

Thus, the correlation between presidential institutions and (failure of) democratic consolidation in the contemporary world, if it exists at all, should not be considered intuitive and explainable in terms of hypotheses generated from a framework that sees the lack of legislative support for presidents as the crux of the problem. That framework was generated with a specific set of historical examples in mind, and it became popular in the context of the debt crisis in Latin America and the concerns about the ability of governments in the region to implement structural policies that were at the time considered necessary. While implementation of these policies required the preference alignment of the executive and the legislature, all countries operated under a constitution that provided no such guarantee. By contrast with presidentialism, assembly confidence was seeing as the institutional mechanism that assured support of legislative majority to the executive and parliamentarism as the form of government that would prevent the failure of the new democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe. We know where this story went: few democracies, parliamentary or presidential, failed in the way that was then expected. Perhaps this is the fact that requires explanation.

What kind of constitution is best suited to help consolidate democracy? Unfortunately, in my view, some scholars believe that there is a clear answer to this question and are not shy to advocate their views. For instance, in an opinion piece published in July 2013, Bruce Ackerman, a professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, stated that the failure of the military rulers who had just taken power in Egypt to replace presidentialism with “a European-style parliamentary system,” “virtually guarantees a repetition of the tragic events of the past year.”[v] Furthermore, as he argues counterfactually, the adoption of a parliamentary constitution after Mubarak’s departure “could well have avoided the current upheaval and bloodshed in the first place.” The reason, according to him, is that “the presidency is a winner-take-all office,” which may be suitable for a country such as the United States, “where well-organized parties contend for the prize,” but “is a recipe for tyranny in places like Egypt, where Islamists have powerful organizational advantages in delivering the vote.” Although Ackerman stands out in the forcefulness and clarity with which he defends a constitutional overhaul in countries that adopt presidentialism, he certainly does not hold this opinion alone. Yet, we may ask: is this view warranted?

This kind of advice is based on generic and one-sided arguments, which are supported by scant historical and statistical evidence: isolated regime crises (Chile in 1973 is favorite, with Egypt beginning to trail behind) and references to the correlation between presidentialism and regime breakdown, as if correlation was evidence of causation. (But we know better than this!). Moreover, parliamentarism and presidentialism are very broad constitutional frameworks: as recent research has demonstrated, they can be configured in an infinite number of ways; they interact with other, small and large, institutional features of the political system; and, of course, they interact with non-institutional factors, unique to the country where they are being adopted. This last point is particularly relevant for Egypt. It is possible that Ackeman is right and a parliamentary constitution may do the trick in Egypt and allow for the peaceful processing of conflicts between Islamists and secularists. On the other hand, we have good reasons to believe that, given the nature of its military, the main problem in Egypt at this point is far from being institutional; perhaps given the presence of such an actor, any kind of constitutional arrangement would have failed. Thus, to reduce parliamentarism and presidentialism to one essential feature, to look at specific situations from the lens provided by this essential feature, and offer constitutional advice on the basis of this exercise requires courage, the courage of fools who believe that they have successfully found the solution to the problem that has eluded everyone else.

I thus end with a note which suggests more humbleness than confidence in our ability to provide positive advice of the sort given by Ackerman. The vast majority of studies have failed to establish convincingly that there exists a causal relationship between the form of government and democracy. Consequently, unless in some specific case there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum about the need for change, it is not certain that the benefit of adopting a new type of constitution will outweigh the costs of implementing it.

[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.

[iv], Sebastian Saiegh, Ruling by Statute: How Uncertainty and Vote Buying Shape Lawmaking (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[v] Bruce Ackerman, “To Save Egypt, Drop the Presidency,” New York Times, July 10, 2013.

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

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