Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Term limits, parliamentary government, and Latin America

I must say I am getting tired of the seemingly endless debate about presidential terms in Latin America. Indeed, before the Honduran crisis it had never occurred to me that a coup might be carried out just for asking about them. Now, Daniel Ortega is saying it would only be fair if he got the chance to be re-elected too, while Alvaro Uribe just can't say no despite being slapped down in public by Barack Obama.

Maybe it is time to start talking about parliamentary governments again. This was a hot policy topic in the 1990s, but has faded since then.* There is still research being done, but the policy angle is less evident. In 1993 Brazil actually held a referendum to determine whether to have a presidential or parliamentary system. It might not be a bad idea to try in other countries--in fact, Daniel Ortega proposed a change this year, though now he seems mostly to be talking about presidentialism with recall potential, which is a very different kettle of fish.

With a parliamentary system, the term limit debate would disappear because there would be no need for any. The Prime Minister would have to maintain the confidence of the legislature. There would have been no coup in Honduras because Zelaya would have suffered a no-confidence vote long ago (or would have avoided it by working with his party) and new legislative elections would have been held, with a new PM chosen. Alvaro Uribe would remain Prime Minister for the time being, though there would likely be quite a lot of jockeying within his coalition to challenge his leadership. Hugo Chávez's opposition would have to work very hard to get a no-confidence vote, likely unsuccessfully for the near future.

Prime Ministers enter office with the mindset of working with the legislature since they came from its majority. If a populist with personal appeal but no party support wanted to be Prime Minister, he or she would have to get elected to the legislature and start attracting support.

There is no doubt that countries with weak political institutions, like Honduras, could still suffer instability. But at the very least, incentives for political cooperation and coalition-building would be created where there were none before.

* See, for example, fellow blogger Matthew Shugart and Scott Mainwaring's edited volume Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997).


leftside 7:59 PM  

Indeed, before the Honduran crisis it had never occurred to me that a coup might be carried out just for asking about them.

I hate to be the stickler, but again, we have not seen any evidence that Zelaya even ASKED about changing term limits. Still, the point still makes it into every Western media report on the crisis... The PR spinmeisters deserve their pay on this one!

As for Parlimentarianism, I think there is a reason they don't exist in the region (except for Cuba?!).

As a whole, I think the term limit debate is a healthy one for the region to have. My own opinion is that term limits are a direct affront to democracy - which is letting the people decide who they want to lead them. A lack of term limits may have been a necessary defense against the weakness of certain democratic institutions. But I think more realisticly, they reflected a desire by elites to assure moderation of change. That stagnation is a major reason why Latin America has progressed so little. You look at areas that made great leaps - China, Vietnam, the Middle East, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. - most of them had a single unifying leader with a vision they were able to lay out and chip away at over time. Our best years were under 3 term FDR. The same for Mayors and other elected officials... You can't get anything done in 4 years - you're still learning how things work...

leftside 8:00 PM  

A lack of term limits may...

Should read: "Term limits mah have been a necessary..."

leftside 8:21 PM  

mah = may.. jeez

Let me also add that I think this question about Presidentialism vs Parlimentarianism is a distraction from what this is really about, which is the rise of citizen power (sometimes called direct democracy). I don't think it is all that novel to argue that this is what is really scaring elites from Mexico City to Santiago. Hence the full court press we've seen from the likely suspects - trying to make the arguments that getting the citizens involved in creating a new democracy is somehow anti-democratic.

As Al Giordono reminds us, "citizen power (or "Poder Ciudadano") was the centerpiece of President Zelaya's campaign. The people expected to be consulted. The Law of Citizen Participation, laying out the methodologies of popular consultation, was the first thing Zelaya pushed for in office. This referendum was not a sideshow or something unexpected. It was a centerpiece of many Honduran's vision to make society work for the people, as it has so miserably failed to do...

mike a,  10:09 PM  

I think this is a great point. The US wants to impose democracy all over the world, and has been pretty successful at doing so over the past 60 years. But where is it written in stone that democracy is the best government for poor developing nations? We like to criticize the Chinese model, or the Vietnamese model, but on the other hand, it's tough to argue with the results, if we concentrate on their consistently rising standards of living. How would China look if you had one billion Chinese making policy decisions? It certainly would not have become the world's factory and job machine as fast as it did.

In the context of Honduras, maybe the Honduran people are happier having Micheletti or his successor in power, democracy be damned. Their system of changing the guys in charge may be a horror to us gringos, but I think you'll find that a lot of Latin Americans just don't care too much about democracy. They want their countries to grow and prosper, period. This may be a reason why democracy is not the resounding winner in the annual surveys conducted by The Economist on the preferred form of government in Latin America.

Miguel Centellas 12:05 AM  

The US being a democracy is not the only (nor the best) reason to support democracy for developing countries. Anyone who thinks democracy may not be "suited" for poor countries would do well to first read Amartya Sen's "Development as Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1999). China may have better economic growth rates, but in times of crisis (Sen focuses on famine), I'd rather live in India than China.

Miguel Centellas 12:05 AM  

That said, I'm a big fan of parliamentarized presidentialism -- w/ the addition of confidence votes.

marcin 4:30 AM  

I don’t see any contradiction between Parlimentarianism and what you promote: 'direct democracy' and strong leaders who can carry out their vision. A successful PM can be elected many times and can be a strong leader (Helmut Kohl in Germany, Margaret Thatcher in UK, Pierre Trudeau in Canada and many others). It’s the people who elect his party or not, it’s they who decide if he’s going to govern for another term – it is a direct democracy and 'the elites' don't get to decide for the people. It's exactly what you said and want: letting the people decide who they want to lead them. Also, there is no term limit debate cause term limits – which you find a direct affront to democracy – don’t exist.

mike a,
The US wants to impose democracy all over the world, and has been pretty successful at doing so over the past 60 years. Successful? In Latin America you mean?

leftside 12:17 PM  

Marcin, fair points. I am not against Parliamentarianism per se. I just think there is a reason we don't see it in Latin America.

Matthew Shugart 12:38 PM  

Actual parliamentarism is never proposed in Latin America, at least not in any "serious" proposal I am aware (with one brief exception).

Rather, what is proposed are various forms of semi-presidential system: yes, a PM as head of cabinet responsible to the legislative majority, but alongside a directly elected president who would certainly remain far more than a figurehead.

Some of the alleged "parliamentary" proposals--such as one circulating in Nicaragua--do not even go that far, for instance by making the majority to oust a PM 60% or two thirds. Then it is a total sham.

But even a real semi-presidential proposal, such as what Brazilians voted on, still has a powerful presidency, and thus the issue of term limits remains alive.

Well designed (by which I mean with no authority of the president to dismiss a PM/cabinet and no presidential veto), a semi-presidential system could be a real advance. But such models are almost never seriously debated in the region. And the term limit question remains even then.

Peru actually has had a variant of semi-presidentialism since the 1930s, and you might note that the presidency is still rather important.

(The one exception was Brazil's reforms of 1961, which abolished direct election of the presidency and would have adopted a real parliamentary system. The amendments were passed, then reversed, and then came the coup.)

boz 1:13 PM  

How many democracies have changed from presidential to parliamentary systems or vice-versa? What caused them to change? I can't imagine there being too many case studies.

leftside 1:13 PM  

It is interesting to see serious folks propose taking power away from directly elected Presidents, in favor of PMs elected by the Parliment or Cabinet. Again, Cuba comes closest to this model.

pc 10:05 AM  

Leftside, Mexico is talking about taking a step in that direction, with the Secretary of the Interior to be selected (or ratified, depending on which version you hear) by congress. In some descriptions, the idea is that he would function as a de facto PM. It's a pet project of PRI senate leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones.

Matthew Shugart 2:29 PM  

boz: "How many democracies have changed from presidential to parliamentary systems or vice-versa?"

In our study, the largest of its kind, Samuels and I found exactly... zero.

At least if you are looking at direct transitions from presidential democracy to parliamentary democracy. Pakistan had a brief presidential system that qualified as a democracy, then military rule, then a brief period of parliamentary democracy (then another coup, and now back as parliamentary democracy, sort-of).

Germany had an elected and powerful presidency under the Weimar republic, though it was semi-presidential. It is parliamentary now. You know something about the intervening years.

There may be a case or two of a country that was insufficiently democratic to be in our purview that has made such a change, but I am aware of no such cases. (And there was the asterisk-worthy Brazilian example I gave above.)

By the way, the reverse is almost as rare. Ignoring semi-presidential systems (of which there are a few that were formerly parliamentary, like France and Slovakia), no parliamentary democracy has become a presidential democracy, with one exception: Gambia. (Israel adopted a directly elected PM, still responsible to the parliament, for a few years, then went back.)

Unknown 2:31 PM  

Obviously my reference to "zero" was an answer to "presidential to parliamentary" and later I give one example of "vice versa."

Sorry about that.

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