Sunday, May 01, 2005

Presidential and Parliamentary regimes (again!)

I would like to present here an edited version of an e-mail I sent to Christina Domínguez about our discussion on presidential and parliamentary regimes:

My concern with Presidential regimes comes not only out of the readings we have considered in the course. It comes out of my own experience in Mexico, dealing precisely with the effects of presidential regime, out of the consideration of the Argentinean and Venezuelan experiences, but also out of the consideration of other readings dealing with the issue of the negative consequences of presidential regimes, even if we forget about a possible comparison with parliamentary regimes.

It is not that I am obsessed with stability. I am not. I am very much concerned and committed with social change. I cannot stand poverty in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America. I cannot stand corruption. I hate the irresponsible power games in which Mexican, Argentinean, or Bolivian politicians engage themselves paying little or no consideration to the consequences of their behavior.

However, I believe that as long as the market economy exists the way it exists nowadays, the chances to promote social change outside of the extremely tight limits of the market economy are rather slim. Even Cuba has been forced to develop forms of market economy or at least to insert itself into such economy.

In other countries of the region, the pressures are even harder. Mexico, as an example, because of the closeness with the U.S. and because of the existence of a very powerful bourgeoisie, is pretty much unable to attempt any form of social change that goes against it. You can say, well the EZLN is there as an example of the opposite, and I would agree with you. Unfortunately, I do not think that their chances to induce change in the long run are that good.

Therefore, we need to find a way to facilitate social change (for the better, of course) without disrupting the kinds of equilibriums that a market economy requires. That is where the parliamentary regimes come to my mind and the minds of others area specialists as one specific solution to one specific set of problems.

I do not think that the shift from presidential to parliamentary regimes will be enough to address all the problems in many of the countries of the region. I do believe, however, that some of the Latin American countries will benefit themselves from such change. Mostly, because parliamentary regimes deal with social and political conflict in better ways than presidential regimes.

It would be impossible for me to go over the entire literature on parliamentary regimes to explain why they have proved to be better suited to deal with social and political conflict than presidential regimes. What I can say at this point is to suggest you to keep your options for political analysis open.

Betting, as is often done in Latin America and in many Latin American studies centres here in the United States on the possibilities of social mobilization and social movements denies, on the one hand, the ability to consider the negative impacts that cycles of political instability have on Latin American polities and economies. I understand that approach: it is good, it is healthy to get rid of bad politicians, and I agree with it, the problem is that to do so in a presidential regime is much harder than to do it in a parliamentary one.

Why? Mostly because of the time and effort that you need to defrock a president. I am not thinking about creating conflict-free environments or polities. On the contrary, I think we need healthy ways to process conflict, because conflict is unavoidable, more so in contexts of deep inequality as the ones that exist in Latin America. I believe, in this sense, that parliamentary regimes provide a better set up to get rid of bad politicians, and that presidential regimes are not good for that.

Other source of concern about the presidential regimes is connected with the potential they have for widespread conflict and cycles of violence, that getting rid of a bad ruler creates. Think of La Violencia in Colombia. Nobody thought that it was going to turn out the way it did. Because as much as it happens with wars, with cycles of violence is easy to know when they start, but very hard to end them.

A third source of concern about the ways in which presidential regimes get rid of bad rulers, is connected with the negative consequences that instability has for the poor and middle classes in countries that already have very fragile economies. If you are already poor, and you depend on the government for your income or to have access to goods and/or services (publicly or privately run), these cycles of instability are nothing but bad news. Prices soar, distrust in economic exchanges grows, and uncertainty takes over as the key feature of political, social, and economic interactions, and because of that it is increasingly harder to attract investment (national or foreign). Instability provides the perfect foundation for the reproduction and entrenchment of poverty, it is a recipe for disaster.

Not only that, but since you have a long standing tradition of clientelism in the region, there are questions about the nature and origins of social movements aiming to defrock presidents.

Moreover, following other more qualified analysts of Latin American politics (as Juan José Linz) I am mostly concerned with the pervasive effects that these cycles of instability have for the overall performance of the economy and for the possibilities of economic development. Think, as an example, how much a country loses (in terms of time and money but especially in terms of trust) every time you get into a cycle of instability.

Rich people with bank accounts in Miami will not suffer from them; moreover, in some cases they are able to profit from them, because they have the connections and the expertise to do it. However, you can be sure that the poor and the middle classes will suffer from these cycles: they will loose income, they will have problems to access basic public services, schools often times will close, and the roots of inequality will grow deeper.

The discussion goes well beyond the defense of Lucio Gutiérrez or Abdalá Buccaram in Ecuador, or Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina. In other words, is not that I am defending Lucio Gutiérrez. I am sure he made mistakes; the problem is that within the context of presidential polities, it is harder to find a way out of such mistakes. Allegations of corruption, mismanagement, or dereliction of duty are commonplace in the exchanges among politicians (think of Clinton again). You can charge any politician, anywhere in the world with them. The problem is that in the context of the institutions of presidential politics it becomes very hard to prove them and to force a president out of power.

In parliamentary regimes, all you need to do is to present a vote of confidence in the floor and if you win it, then the government is over. Again, Italy is a perfect example of a very conflictive polity that has been able to process the dissolution of governments very easily, thanks to the framework provided by the parliamentary regime.

Finally, as I mentioned in class, the main problem for me is that if defrocking presidents were good for a polity, then Ecuador should be by now, after several “interrupted presidencies” a paradise, the best country in Latin America. Sadly, it is not.

Ultimately, all I am asking, as I said in class, is to keep your options open. To allow for the consideration of a different institutional arrangement to process social differences, because I am certain that presidential regimes make extremely hard for those polities to process such differences, and actually are responsible of increasing many of the problems that the region confronts.

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