Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Presidential Regimes and Institutional Designs

One of the main problems that Latin American polities have faced over the years has been the instability of their political regimes. Instability is critical to understand the problems that region confronts for several reasons and forces us to raise questions about its origins. Above all, instability is extremely expensive for the countries suffering it.

Instability has negative consequences for the countries suffering it because:
  • It induces uncertainty in the political processes, in the management of public goods and services,
  • It delays and in some cases cancels the development and implementation of policies,
  • It contributes to inflationary cycles (and we have already consider the nature of inflation as a regressive tax in previous postings),
  • It prevents local and foreign long term investment,
  • It exacerbates radical positions on both extremes of the political spectrum,
  • Even when it comes as a consequence of democratic procedures, puts democracy at risk

Yi Feng, of the School of Politics and Economics of Claremont Graduate University, developed a detailed analysis of the consequences that political instability has for policy uncertainty, political freedoms, the formation of human capital, and economic growth. The title is: "Political Freedom, Political Instability, and Policy Uncertainty: A Study of Political Institutions and Private Investment in Developing Countries". It was published by the International Studies Quarterly (June 2001, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 271-294(24)). You can get access to it through the Ebsco-Host link of the Library's website.

Now, since the only known political regime in the region has been presidential, we can assume that it has at least some consequences for the performance of the governments, and the outcomes that the political systems produce.

If we are unwilling to consider this feature, then the finding a possible answer to the issue of instability needs to go to other features: the so-called "political culture", the Iberian and indigenous legacies, the racial or ethnic features, and the like.

If we assume that this is an issue of "political culture", following the rationale of S. P. Huntington or Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, then we will have to ask if there is a solution to it. From the "clash of civilizations" perspective developed by Huntington, there is no way out. "Culture", and "political culture" in particular cannot be changed, they are the consequence of the "corrupted" legacies that reside at the very core of Latin American identities: Iberian and indigineous for cases like Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay; Iberian and Gaucho for cases like Argentina, Uruguay, and to a certain extent Brazil, and even worse for countries with a triple "negative" legacy like the Dominican Republic, Panamá, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, and regions of Peru: Iberian, indigenous, and African.

From this approach, identities have existed as such since the days of the Protestant Reformation and the colonization of Latin America, and people like myself, mestizo, Catholic, and Latin American are little more than beasts, unable to conduct ourselves according to the needs of a democratic polity. Of course, a new problem arises for this approach when we consider the experiences of Spain and Portugal in the 20th century, but then again, perhaps since they are European and there is less or no trace of indigenous or African legacies there they have been successful when compared with Latin American failures.

As you can imagine, I have several reasons to reject these kinds of explanations. The most important of them is that it leaves more than 500 million persons without any possible redemption.

Then, if you reject the cultural and racial explanations (that ultimately are one and the same), we need to figure out other possible explanations for the current situation, and to avoid similar situations in the future. Again, because of the consequences of instability.

Since presidential regimes are the only known regime in the region and the Presidency as such concentrates so much legal and extra-legal powers, you cannot rule it out as a source of instability.

Moreover, consider beyond the successful experience of the U.S. (which would require and entirely separate explanation) the ammount of scholarship produced on the subject in recent years. Just going over the citations and references of the articles by Arturo Valenzuela and Joe Forewaker, gives you an idea of how relevant it is, how intense is the debate.

Consider also the fact that, even if there is no agreement among the two authors considered about the possibility of inducing a radical change in the political regimes (going from presidential to parliamentary regimes--my own personal Mexican utopy), both agree on the need to introduce major changes in the institutional designs of the region to prevent instability. Moreover, both agree that without those changes Latin American democracies are at great risk.

Forewaker provides a superb account of the kinds of outcomes that the Latin American presidential systems produce. He also provides insights about possible ways to improve the systems' performance and overall outcomes. Valenzuela's identifies for the most part similar sources of instability, but he is more ambitious when proposing possible solutions and more aggressive in the analysis of the Latin American presidencies. Reread pages 14 and 15 of his article, when he compares "minority presidents" (those with less than 45% of the Legislative) with "majority presidents" and how, in Venezuela's case, Carlos Andrés Pérez was unable to control his own party in the Congress.

For those interested in the topic and able to read Spanish, I suggest to read Bruce Ackerman's article "¿Hacia una síntesis latinoamericana?" published as a part of the book Contribuciones para el debate. Contribuciones ... is part of the studies commisioned by the United Nations Programme on Development for the study Democracy in Latin America. We read in session two a summary in English of that study.

When comparing presidential and parliamentary regimes (p. 93 of Contribuciones para el debate) Ackerman says:

I propose to put aside the academic debate about the advantages or disadvantages of presidential regimes for democratic politics, and consider the impact that it has in the functioning of the courts and the bureaucracies of a country.

To enhance our understanding of the problem, I will use Guillermo O'Donnell's distinction between regime and State. As far as the organization of their political regime, Latin Americans refused the possibility of following the European model of parliamentary democracy to pick, instead, the presidential system following the U.S. style. But as far as the State, the Latin Americans were much more eurocentrist to organize their bureaucracies and tribunals, following an ethno-nationalist model. Hence, we are before a typical Latin American synthesis: a regime following the U.S. model within a European like State. Is this peculiar synthesis particularly propitious or particularly disastrous?

I am sorry to spell it out, but my approach is the gloomiest.

Ackerman's argument is extremely useful to understand both the outcomes of presidential regimes, the instability that affects them. I will try to find if he has published a similar piece in English.

Not only Ackerman. Other heavyweights of political analysis in the region discuss this topic and many other topics, so try to read it. You can get it here.

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