The Authoritarian Credentials of Populist Presidentialism



Independent Researcher


Abstract: This paper approaches the issue of the authoritarian features exhibited by various incumbents of the office of president, who choose to enhance their own power at the expense of other democratic institutions and ultimately, at the expanse of the quality of democracy itself. Many presidential and semi-presidential republics have opened the way for populist leaders to seize the office and use various authoritarian tools, such as coup d’état, discretionary control of institutions, obstinate conflict with the parliament, involvement in mishandling of elections, altering the constitution. Most of such populist leaders operate in Latin America and the space of the former Soviet Union and have managed to incur significant successes over the years, despite their blatantly unrepresentative agenda. A particular solution to such a threat to democracy would certainly be the insulation offered by a parliamentary system.


Keywords: populism, presidentialism, leader, parliamentarianism.



The concentration of power in the person of a directly elected head of state raises certain concerns about the quality of democracy. In many democratic regimes, the powers of the office of president were constantly pushed beyond the interpretation of the constitutional provisions by populist political leaders.

Accordingly, in the context of similar constitutional provisions, typical for a presidential system, some heads of state acknowledged and acted within the limits of their function, while in other cases others have consistently campaigned for gaining as much power as possible into their own hands, by circumventing and even ignoring the constitution: involvement in internal affairs beyond the limits of the constitution, unilateral initiation of plebiscites, the appointment of prime ministers in spite of the parliamentary majority, failing to respect the separation of powers in the state of law. To various degrees, this is the case of heads of state like Alberto Fujimori, Alexander Lukashenko, Boris Yeltsin, Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin.

Actions such as the expansion of presidential powers, the desire to overcome the limitations of the political office, the intention to change the institutional design, all these aspects lead to alterations of the democratic social contract.

The institutional structure of democracy determines the way in which the organized political actors can come to power. It also sets the framework within which they can implement their policies in the state. Government effectiveness determines citizen’s satisfaction that can manifest their political opinions within the constitutional framework - usually through elections - and this can provide such support and stability to the democratic regime.

Guillermo O'Donnell noticed[1] that there are certain regime forms, which he calls “delegative democracy”, where the president considers that the popular vote gives him the right to do whatever he desires while in office. Although O'Donnell considers this delegative system as a type of democracy, in fact it is much closer to personal authoritarianism.

In her turn, Marina Ottaway starts to analyse semi-authoritarian regimes, but her characterization is more suitable for actual authoritarian regimes that use electoral institutions to legitimize themselves: “the existence and persistence of mechanisms that prevent the transfer of power through elections”[2]. Although they kept some formal democratic institutions (especially elections), most such regimes do not reach the moment of democratic consolidation, becoming instead electoral authoritarian regimes[3].

Certainly, such states are not outright authoritarian, nor exactly democratic. Moreover, such regimes can ensure the existence and maintenance of mechanisms that effectively prevent the transfer of power through elections, from the hands of a party or of the leaders in power in favour of a new elite or political organization[4]. The purpose of the politic elites is to grasp the power; during the transition period, this struggle for power must take place within the democratic game, in order to ensure the success and stability of the democratic regime change. Formal democratic electoral systems block the access to other elites in power and secure their own permanence in government.

Starting from the issue of the use of elections, there is a distinction that is worth noticing: there are semi-democratic regimes where elections are not the source of legitimacy of the executive, which is not dependent on the outcome of the vote, after which voters cannot transfer the power to another political actor, the source of political power being unchallenged (Iran, Kazakhstan) and on the other hand there are hybrid regimes where leaders succeed to remain in power by winning democratic elections, but using unfair – therefore undemocratic - competition: limiting the opposition’s funding, harassing opponents, limiting their presence in the media (Russia Venezuela). 

Although there have always been in history authoritarian regimes which held the elections, today, even if these are free, the result is sometimes known before the official results are posted.Perhaps a compelling proof of irregularities in the management of elections is the fact that a president, like Yeltsin, for instance, enjoyed popularity only on election day, otherwise faring miserably in most opinion polls between 1992 and 1999 (basically his entire presidency over independent Russia).

This became clear in 1996, when he rose from one digit approval rates in February, to win the presidential election in July, with 50.4% of the votes, at a moment when his only visible supporters were the state structures of control, a dozen Oligarchs (people raised from rags to riches by the fraudulent privatization program and the rampart corruption of his first term as president) and, more disturbingly, the Western democracies, particularly the US, chose to ignore his blatant authoritarian credentials and solely focus on his non-communist party affiliation.

Even in Africa, starting with the 90s, many countries have experienced political liberalization, allowing the formation of opposition parties, freedom of the press and even multiparty elections. However, if holding free and fair elections is, indeed, a necessary condition for democracy, it is not a sufficient condition.

Many authoritarian leaders responded international demands for democratization by holding multiparty elections, which, however, they have also won, most times without any problem. In Ghana, after a period of authoritarianism (1981-1993), Jerry Rawlings held free elections (starting in 1992), and always won them, although he indeed yielded the power after reaching the two-term limit.

In Benin, President Mathieu Kérékou, after an apparent authoritarian government (1972-1991), organised and won multiparty elections (1996-2001), as did Omar Bongo in Gabon (1967-2009), who won the elections in 1993, 1998, 2005, and in Congo, Denis Sassou, who ruled between 1979-1992 in an authoritarian fashion, and returned to politics by winning the elections in 1997, 2002, 2009. Likewise, in Guinea, although there was no previous authoritarian regime, President Lansana Conte remained in power between 1993 and 2008. These mandates, although obtained through elections deemed free, ought to be classified in the category of formal democratic regimes, because the election results of the president in power are significantly influenced by the wide range of policy instruments at its disposal in order to surpass competitors and to stay in power.

For instance, the importance of controlling the intelligence apparatus was understood by many such presidents; as soon as he came to power, in 1999, Hugo Chavez nominated a close ally, from his own party, as head of the secret police. The same thing happened in Peru, where Alberto Fujimori named his friend Vladimir Montesinos as de facto head of the intelligence community, in 1990, right after having won the presidency. In Russia, Vladimir Putin was actually in charge of the main intelligence agency immediately before becoming prime-minister in 1999.

An element recurrently appearing present in all these cases recognized as belonging to these manifestations of authoritarian presidentialism is the fight against the free press. Both Putin and Chavez strove to control the media, especially the powerful TV stations, or simply push-out the independent channels. In Russia, Venezuela, presidents were able to shut down media companies, TV broadcasters mainly, just because they aired views opposing the government. Actually, it is natural that the media be a target of presidential attacks in such regimes, because, since we speak of political systems which functioned initially on the basis of the separation of powers, the media incurs the risk of exposing various perspectives on social and political realities, and this diversity cannot be accepted by a non-democratic president.

In such political systems, contrary to the democratic spirit, to the rule of law and the separation of powers, the presidential executive proves the most important source of legislation. Like all the presidents with authoritarian tendencies, Chavez was exhorted to issue legislation himself, and used habilitation laws to govern without the Venezuelan Congress for a total of four years out of his 13 in office.

The most important parts of the legislation are passed ignoring the will of the parliament, thus emasculating the purpose of the house of representatives and so eliminating the democratic attributes of the decision-making process.

This presumption that the presidential executive should exact legislation is what brings the head of state at odds with a solid modern democracy, so naturally the fight of the presidents for more power becomes a fight against the national parliaments.

Since political power is a zero sum game, in order for a political actor to gain more power, then another actor or group of actors will lose some of its power. Each institutional design provides enough power to fulfil each policy objective (legislative, executive, administrative, electoral). There is no need to increase the power of an actor so that it can fulfil a goal: the power such an actor demands exists already in the institutional arrangements of the regimes, either in the hands of other institutions, or even of the individual political actor: the citizen.

For example, when a head of state demands more power, for any purpose – be it one of national reform and state modernization (Getulio Vargas, Porfirio Diaz, Benito Juarez, Juan Peron, Hugo Chavez, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) - this means that he takes more power from other political actors, who would be in a position, either independently or in coalition, to achieve the same objectives themselves. But the concentration of more power in the hands of a single person is not good for democracy.

Increasing the power of one political office means that at least one other political actor loses some of his. The mere intention to increase the powers of a political office is undemocratic in itself, because it assumes the weakening of the rights of another democratic office. When the increase of power is in favour of an individual actor (the most visible and common example is that of the president), the non-democratic character and intention of this action are more pronounced.

In contemporary democracies, the rule of law requires institutionalised and articulated coherent organisations. The Parliament is a forum for debate and enactment of key laws and the judicial system is where conflicts of interests are tackled and decided upon. Together, the parliament and the judiciary institution are perceived as organisations providing the efficiency of social laws. So it is understandable to findParliaments everywhere trying desperately to save democracy from authoritarian figures riding high on misplaced popular emotions.

In Russia, the entire year 1993 was marked by a confrontation of the president with the opposing parliament, and when it looked like he might lose or at least not win, he illegally disbanded the legislative, and when the latter resisted, he send the military to fire on it, killing almost 200 people over a few days in early October 1993.

This shows the endemic failures of the mixed system, when faced with a person bent on a dictatorial administration of the country, although sometimes cloaked in the mantle of populist discourse, such as the greater economic good or the fight against the corruption of every other politician than himself or his cabal.

The constitutional crisis of 1993 was not an event in favour of Boris Yeltsin, whose every action was against the fundamental law or other adjacent legislation; he had absolutely no legal basis for repudiating the constitution of the state and for dissolving the parliament.

This highly disproportionate use of force is anti-democratic to its core, especially when the target is the only representative national institution of a state (the Parliament).

Despite unlimited support from the West in all his authoritarian moves, being the poster child for Anti-communism in its very home, in 1993 it was exactly the lack of involvement from the Communist Party, led by Zyuganov, that dwindled the support for the democratic stance against Yeltsin.

The solution of the crisis meant that Yeltsin could issue decrees and thus bypass the legislative, and his powers were further increased with the new constitution forced through at the end of 1993.

In the ‘90s, in Latin America (first in April 1992 in Peru) and then in some former Soviet countries (Russia, Belarus), a new form of coup d’état emerged, instigated and run by the presidential incumbent, against the very construction of democratic institutions: autogolpe (self-coup). Such presidents have dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution and tried various means - more or less constitutional - to endow themselves with increased executive powers. Boris Yeltsin even ordered tanks to shoot at the Parliament building, just two years after the collapse of the USSR had presented him to the world as the champion of democracy.

Autogolpe is a euphemism for a new type of dictatorial aggression exerted by the president against the legislative and the other institutions of the state of law. The self-coup is just as anti-democratic as any other coup. Basically, the term itself – autogolpe – encapsulates the idea that the usual coup would happen against a president, who also tries to tone down the non-democratic reality of the actions of President Fujimori.

At the other end is Honduras (and perhaps Venezuela in 2002), when the military intervened instead for the protection and restoration of democracy. According to the constitution of Honduras, the military can act in defence of constitutional provisions, and called to do so by certain institutions of the state, which is what happened in 2009: the role of legal guardian of democracy rested with the army, both under the terms of the democratic constitution, and under a direct mandate of legislative (Parliament) and legal powers (the Honduran Supreme Court). In the case of the deposition of President Manuel Zelaya, state institutions (Supreme Court, Parliament, army) reacted in defence of democracy, threatened his unconstitutional intention to extend his presence in office. The Supreme Court deemed illegal his actions to stay in power beyond his term, and thus the Court acted in the defence of democracy.

Zelaya’s intention to eliminate a presidential term limit is identical to Chavez’s action to remove the two-term restrictions in his country. Any extension of attribute or temporal limits of an office is undemocratic, because, in extremis, this extension could be indefinite[5].

A similar case was that of President Alvaro Uribe, who managed to persuade the Columbian Congress to validate his intention of re-election, by amending the constitution (2004). Even in such a case, when all relevant institutions acted lawfully, amid consensus between different political camps, the president’s action still bodes ill.

In Russia, Putin did not try to alter the constitution to suit his needs, but plied his tactics to suit the constitution. Since he was limited to only two consecutive mandates, he made sure he chose a docile successor, and teamed with him in the president-premier pattern to rule the country from that position. While indeed granting Alexander Medvedev all the exposure endeared in the office of president, it was obvious that the real executive leader of Russia was still Putin. The concordat worked perfectly and in 2012 they switched places, and the presidency was handed over to Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, this loophole - although certainly constitutional and therefore democratic – could mean that Putin might rule for life.

In Niger, in February 2010, the military staged a coup d'état, removing incumbent Mamadou Tandja who intended to remain in power after the expiration of the legal number of mandates, claiming popular support to back up his action. Tandja had even managed to organize a referendum to turn the previous semi-presidential political system into a presidential one. In fact, half of the members of the junta in place in Niamey included prominent officers involved in the coup of 1999, in which another personal regime was toppled, and these officers indeed withdrew from power once the elections had taken place, as promised, just three months later.

In Honduras and Niger the military coup has actually overturned two autogolpe, has replaced the enemy of the democratic regime, and has allowed their respective states to return to a democratic government, holding free elections in 2009 and in 2011.

In Europe, after the collapse of the USSR and its satellite regimes, it seemed that it would not witness again the experience of non-democratic regimes. Moreover, such optimism was the key note of the theory of the third wave of democratization, launched by Samuel Huntington in 1991, and was in fact largely justified at that time. However, soon after, in the ex-Soviet area, a series of presidential regimes drifted towards formal democracy (Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan) or openly authoritarian regimes (Kazakhstan, Belarus). The Francophile calling of many Eastern European societies could produce but a Gaullist model, a monarchical-republic, which is, despite its name, lacking the political and social dialogue of a genuine democracy. The pitfall is confusing Gaullism with democracy and is thus aggravating the dangers of presidentialism. Government effectiveness is preferred to democratic values, even at the risk of authoritarian manifestations from the highest office.

Another French-inspired concept is the presidential party, as a simple vehicle to support a strong leader, an organization with no clear ideological identity, only with opportunistic affinity, whose sole purpose is to ensure the logistics of the campaign and provide the staff to fill positions in the public administration solely on political criteria. In such ruling parties, internal elections are contested mostly by just one real candidate and most of the times there are no other candidates.

Such presidents build upon the French example and set-up presidential parties that offer them a vehicle of mass campaigning and the appearance of mass support. Essentially, such a party has no real power or even no role, other than to satisfy the needs and decisions of this person. For example, the Unity Party of Russia was created in September 1999, after it became official that Putin would be the successor of Yeltsin, and in just three months it gained 23% of the votes for the Parliament, subsequently supporting Putin’s drive for president in March 2000. Eventually, this meteoric rise was interrupted upon the decision of the president, who demanded and obtained the merger of the Unity Party with another major party (Fatherland Party), in April 2001, to form the presidential party of United Russia, which, to this day, offers Putin the platform to simulate party – therefore mass, rather than personal – rule over the country.

To a certain extent, the personal leadership accompanied by a single actual party is a mobilizing regime, in search of a national community, the classless society (Peron’s Argentina, Nasser’s Egypt, Getulio Vargas’ Brazil, Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey).

Populism is in fact a central strong feature of such presidents. In Venezuela, Chavez was true to his populist agenda, scrapping the presidential limousine or giving away his entire presidential wage to a scholarship fund[6].

The populist image Putin created is reminiscent of the performances of Benito Mussolini, but he has the common sense to be brought up to date with modern times. Putin was seen flying military jets, competing in martial arts, swimming in a Siberian river or using a tranquilizer gun on wild tigers. There are even the Putin-branded products like vodka, canned food and caviar.

In 1999, Chavez launched his own morning radio show, Aló Presidente, on the state radio network, and a Thursday night television show, Face to Face with the President, which are still off the charts for colloquialism and hands-on approach from a head of state: the president took calls from the viewers, discussed his policies and, basically, talked about whatever crossed his mind. Chavez had even an active Twitter account (@chavezcandanga) with millions of followers back when he was alive and well (2012). In October 2013, his successor, Nicolas Maduro created the office of Vice Minister of Supreme Happiness, in charge of coordinating social programs, with a pompous name uncharacteristic of democratic designs.

In a democracy, the constitutional framework is created by the specific nature of the system, providing the means to maintain it, and to implement the state policies. The latter creates satisfaction or dissatisfaction amongst the population, which has the means to express political approval or disapproval. Thus, the constitutional design is important for politicians and citizens alike. A good design maximizes the results of democratic governance, while in the opposite case, the democratic regime may be perceived as inefficient, even corrupt.

Dictatorship in today’s Belarus is the outcome of a failed transition dominated by representatives of the former Soviet regime, but contrariwise, Lukashenko installed his personal dictatorship after defeating in the elections precisely those who had tried the real democratization of the country from 1991 to 1995.

The fight against corruption was the stepping stone used by Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus when he gained popularity and won the presidency back in the early 1990s. Lukashenko made a name for himself while in parliament through his harsh anti-corruption rhetoric, so that he was elected chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusian Parliament, in 1993. From this position, he launched fierce diatribes against politicians he accused of corruption, included top officials, who, incidentally, were would-be presidential candidates for the elections of early 1994. Lukashenko ran as independent, on the highly effective and populist anti-corruption platform, and gained more than double the votes of his runner-up in the first round, and went on to a landslide 80% victory in the second round, in July 1994.

When his authoritarianism became clear, the Parliament of Belarus tried to impeach Lukashenko in 1996, only to prompt the president to demand a new constitution significantly enhancing his powers, and this was passed by a referendum still, to date, unrecognized by the international community. Finally, the original two-term limit for holding the presidency was removed in the 2004 referendum.

In fact, the referendum is every president’s favourite tool for passing populist legislation. A specialist of the referenda, Chavez, lost only one of the 5 he called (also winning one recall referendum in 2004), and waited a little over a year to hold it again, win, and expand his powers, by extending the term of the presidency to 7 years, and, especially, by eliminating the two-term limit for all public offices.

In Venezuela, Chavez called for a referendum just two months in office. Like so many other presidents democratically elected, immediately after coming to power he set about to change the constitutionals design of the country to grant himself even more power, to the detriment of the parliament (for instance, Chavez reduced the legislative to one chamber, from two previously). The ease with which such presidential plebiscites pass, all over the world, and most times against the better judgment, should undoubtedly be put down to effective populist campaign.

Either by coup, or by referendum, many presidents seek unrelentingly to rob powers away from the representatives of the nation. What’s interesting is that most of these conflicts between presidents and parliaments in the last two decades, revolve, one way or another, around the issue of the implementation of neo-liberal policies in the economy, as advocated worldwide, virtually not customized, by the IMF.

In Russia, the period of Yeltsin’s legitimacy lasted so little it can hardly be called having existed at all. In December 1991, he unlawfully extricated Russia from the USSR and thus forced the dismemberment of the Union (something most of the other 14 republics hardly wanted). Merely two months after his tenure of president of the newly independent state of Russia, his announcement of his plans of reforms for the economy prompted the vice-president Alexander Rutskoy to call it an “economic genocide”[7], which eventually proved to be the case: high interest rates, liberalization of prices, foreign trade and currency, austerity.

This type of economic change is known as the Washington Consensus, or better known in Eastern Europe as shock therapy, is advocated, to this day, by the IMF, and focuses on one-sided decomposition of the economy of the country, in the name of privatization of every possible asset, but without meaningful features to genuinely foster the individual enterprise. Basically, it’s based on a drawing-board assumption that once left without previous means of subsistence each individual will strive to start on the path of competition-driven private enterprising that would, in turn, bring about a perfect, text-book, market economy.

There are too few success stories of this shock therapy, since it is meant to be very quick, but, in turn, almost every time when dealing with centralized economies (perhaps with the exception of Poland) the economic transition was, in fact, a slow and agonizing parade of consuming-numbing austerity, raised taxation and credit crunch. The result of this economic transition, especially in Russia and other Eastern European countries, was a sharp reduction of the living standards, which surely can’t possibly be considered a success story of the free market economy.

Faced with the lack of efficiency of governance, the cost was borne by the major social groups (pensioners, civil servants, teachers, doctors, law enforcement). Moreover, the presidential administration announced the elimination of the welfare state to justify their budgetary policies. (In fact, democracy cannot exist outside the welfare state and the European Union is centred precisely on this objective, which outweighs any ancillary economic objectives.)

In fact, the only policy agenda of Boris Yeltsin in common with that of his western backers was the implementation of a market economy at - literally - any cost. But he lacked any kind of commitment, other than token pretence, to any of the democratic values. He constantly tried to accumulate more and more executive powers and to create a network of supporters whose fortunes were owed entirely to him (the oligarchs), therefore dependent on his person. The crisis in a transition state can come in three dimensions[8]: the lack of trust in the efficiency of bureaucracy, in its laws and in the plausibility of the claim that state agencies orient their decisions based on the public good. Daron Acemoglu speaks of a “captured democracy”[9] where democratic institutions exist and function, but are structured so that the result favours the interests of the elite institutions: here is how “weak democracies are threatened by progressive erosion of government performance and of the democratic structures by domestic agents”[10].

Basically, over the entire tenure in office of Boris Yeltsin (except his last year when he clashed with the US over Kossovo), he received unlimited and unwarranted support from Washington, which naturally was grateful for the implosion of the Soviet Union triggered almost unilaterally by Yeltsin himself in late 1991. After 1992, his only significant policy centred on the economic reform, to which every other executive aspects were subsumed, including his fight for power with the Parliament. Considering these reforms brought about the virtual annihilation of any economic power, in just 2-3 years, of a country that only recently has ranked second to the US, their wisdom is questionable, at best. More conspicuously so is the unbridled support of Washington, directly, or that of the IMF and other such institutions; this support chose to overlook all his dictatorial actions from sending soldiers to fire on Parliamentarians in 1993, to his very surprising electoral victory of 1996.

Wayne Merry, a retired diplomat who served at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow at that time[11], showed that Washington was only committed to the neo-liberal program of macro-economic reform and fell deaf to questions of legality and constitutional legitimacy in Russia.

When acting in Eastern Europe, even to this day, the US has shown many times it consistently prefers economic ideology to the fostering of participatory democracy and the rule of law. This was normally a trademark of the republican administrations of the Cold War era, but, unfortunately, it perpetrated again when faced with the crisis situation slowing down many world economies.

Oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven joined in the Davos Pact of February 1996, initiated by the first two, to offer unlimited financial or other support for the re-election of Yeltsin at all costs. Thus, to the backing of state-controlled institutions, Yeltsin could now add all the media owned by these oligarchs, which virtually left nothing available for his main rival Vladimir Zyuganov. Financially, the tap was opened for Yeltsin to the billions accrued by the oligarch during his fire sale of his country assets. Even the US jumped in his boat, and urged the IMF to quicken a 10 billion dollars loan in early 1996, which was mostly used to pay long overdue salaries in an ailing economy.

Other populist authoritarian regimes, with an average level of modernization, have practiced other forms of interactions with the capital, characterized by a coalition of national economic interests and trade unions (corporatism). In Latin America, starting with the interwar years, economic cooperation between the bourgeoisie and the unions was extended to the political sphere, and the industrial bourgeoisie worked with unions in the attempt to diminish or even eliminate the old landowning elite’s leading role in South American politics (Getulio Vargas in Brazil and Juan Peron in Argentina even succeeded), although this alliance proved short lived and conjectural.

In a quite interesting scientific collaboration of three classics of comparative politics scholars - Seymour Martin Lipset’s, Juan Linz’s and Larry Diamond’s Democracy in Developing Countries (1989) - they identify such systems as democracy where “real power of elected officials is so limited, so small the partisan competition and freedom and fairness of elections so compromised, that the electoral results strongly deviate from popular preferences, and/or where civil liberties and policy are so limited that some political interests cannot organize and express”[12].

The issue with this popular preference is that, in fact, a president does not represent all the citizens, but only those who voted for him, exactly because he is elected in a uninominal constituency, by majority vote. He comes in office with a political program, which is supported only by his voters, and so only they will be represented and have their interests protected. The president, like any politician, cannot be the representative of those who did not vote for him.

Only in a proportional representation system is everybody represented, in varying degrees, of course. For example, in a constituency where the proportional system applies, if a party wins 60% of the votes, and another 40% who chooses the winner has roughly 60%[13] of the representatives of the constituency, but the losers are also represented, although, obviously, by fewer delegates. Thus, their political demands are being heard and - even though it may seem improbable to implement, because they are promoted by minority voices - there may be circumstances in which they are put into practice (negotiations, changing the composition of the executive). The chances of implementing policy demands coming from a minority are quite significant, while in the case of the majority system, with its winner-takes-all principle (used for the direct election of the president), any of the demands of the defeated minority, however large it may be, will not be taken into account.

Once he becomes president he is supposed to represent everyone, then there would be no reason for the other candidates in the campaign to engage in electoral disagreements; but his different sporting and, most likely, antagonistic platforms cannot be simultaneously put into practice, so the supporters of the defeated program cannot be represented by the elected president.

In a presidential system, this contradiction is not visible, because the president is also the leader of the cabinet of ministers, which obviously implements administrative policies consistent with the policy platform of the party supporting the president.

On the other hand, the mixed systems empower the elected president, although there is also a premier invested and supported by a majority in parliament. This leads, of course, to differences of opinion, policy conflicts and institutional deadlocks.

For instance, Russia has a complicated constitutional arrangement, which de facto is a presidential one, but features both a directly elected president with mandate unhinged by anybody (i.e. the Parliament), and the office of the prime-minister, who has, officially, a co-dependency status. This formal division between head of state and head of government could put Russia in the semi-presidential category, but the fact is that the premier operates like a Deputy prime-minister to the actual leader of the executive. This is facilitated by the fact that, under Putin, this office holder was carefully selected in the person of Medvedev. Basically, with a docile premier, any mixed system operates virtually like a presidential system, with all powers grasped in the hands of just one person.

In the case of the mixed system, constitutional provisions, such as those striving to impose the president’s role as mediator and representative of all the citizens, are clearly inconsistent: he can only be the representative of his own voters because he will always try to implement – if he counts on the support of the government – only those policies expressly manifested in his electoral campaign. He cannot implement the policies championed by his opponent and desired by the electors who voted against his own agenda. The direct election of the president of the state in a majority constituency annuls his claim to have a mandate from the entire nation. Just as a MP elected in a majority constituency, he represents only his own voters and will try to implement only those policies promised in his own campaign.

The most recent example is that of Ukraine, where a president is faced with the option between two radically antagonistic choices of policy, makes a decision, and realizes he only represents half of the country, while the other half decides to express it gave no such a mandate. In fact, the latter half discovers that all its feasible options converge to forcing, by any means, the incumbent to step down and call for elections. Unfortunately, the reality of the intrinsic failure of the presidential and semi-presidential system is that this will never solve such a devious issue: the next office holder will equally represent little above half of the electorate.

The solution would be the option for the parliamentarian democracy. The main issue in the building of democracy lies in the choice between the presidential and parliamentary system, since the former exhibits inherent problems that can inflict irreparable damage to the quality of democracy in that polis.

Contemporary democracies are of three types: parliamentary, presidential and semi-presidential (a combination of the first two types), and their description is implicit in the name itself. Parliamentary democracies tend to increase the level of freedom that facilitates the vital tasks of economic and social restructuring met by the new, emerging democracies, while simultaneously vying to strengthen their democratic institutions[14].

Steven Fish’s study, Stronger Legislatures, Stronger Democracies (2006), shows[15] that the legislative power in constitutional design is directly proportional to the degree of democracy in the state, measured by the Freedom House score. Thus, countries with a strong parliament, such as Latvia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, are proven more democratic, obviously, than Belarus or Kazakhstan, both presidential regimes.

Figures show that, between 1946 and 1999, the likelihood of parliamentary democracy to succumb in any given year was of 0.0171 (one out of 58), while the probability for the failure of the presidential system was of 0.0516 (one out of 24)[16]: “the higher performance of the parliamentary democracy throughout history is not an accident”[17]. According to Juan Linz, the parliamentary system is more durable than the presidential, and Adam Przeworski also shows that presidential democracies have a shorter lifetime than their parliamentary counterparts[18].

In fact, the critique raised by Juan Linz stems from the majority voting system used for the election for the office of head of state, which induced the winner-takes-all political culture. Linz is not necessarily advocating a parliamentary system, but rather praises the parliamentary coalition as a result of proportional voting systems. Like him, Mark Jones believes that “presidential systems that repeatedly fail to provide sufficient legal support to the president are doomed to failure”[19].

Arend Lijphart’s critique in Models of Democracy (2000)[20] goes along the same lines, since democracy itself requires dialogue, negotiation, therefore compromise. The position of single winner is extremist and irreconcilable. The win-lose game is a zero sum game. The majoritarian structures, found mainly in presidential systems, are not compatible with plural societies, as demonstrated by Lijphart. This is so because the respective systems are based on the principle of winner-takes-all, which reduces to zero the voice of the defeated candidates, when in fact their actual support could reach up to 50%.

In a parliamentary system, the loss of legislative support shows, indirectly, the loss of the citizens’ support and leads to the replacement of the government coalition. Thus, indirectly, the electorate chooses, at any time whatsoever, the composition of the executive, regardless of the actual date of general elections.

Instead, in the presidential system, the head of state has a fixed term and is impossible to remove directly (by the electorate) and very hard indirectly (by its representatives in the parliament), regardless of his behaviour during the mandate. The president may even act and be insensitive to the results of his policies, since there is almost no chance that the citizens punish him for his failures.

Even in a semi-presidential system, the trends to increase the powers of the president amount to changing the constitutional design to produce a pure presidential republic. For example, a pure majoritarian electoral system at district level, with high threshold, would produce a two-party system, that is a single-party government, most likely from the president’s party, which is the exact effect of a presidential cabinet. Thus, even small legal changes would produce a presidential regime, in its classic Latin American form.

All these aspects of presidentialism and parliamentarianism should be taken into consideration in the recent issue of Romania and the constitutional improvement of its political system, meant to perfect its democratic features.





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[1] Guillermo O’DONNEL, “Delegative Democracy?”, Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Working Paper, No. 172, 1992.

[2] Marina OTTAWAY, Martha BRILL OLCOTT, “Challenge of Semi-Authoritarianism”, Carnegie Paper, No. 7, Oct. 1999, p. 2.

[3] Andreas SCHEDLER, “Elections Without Democracy: The Menu of Manipulation”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2002, pp. 36-50; Steven LEVITSKY, Lucan WAY, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2002, pp. 51-65.

[4] Marina OTTAWAY, Martha BRILL OLCOTT, “Challenge…cit.”, p. 3.

[5] Arturo VALENZUELA “Latin American Presidencies Interrupted”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 15, No. 4, October 2004, pp. 5-19; Daniel N. POSNER, Daniel J. YOUNG, “The institutionalization of Political power in Africa”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 18, No. 3, July 2007, pp. 127-140.

[6] Bart JONES, Hugo! The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, Steerforth Press, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2007, p. 234.

[7] Celestine BOHLEN, “Yeltsin Deputy Calls Reforms Economic Genocide”, The New York Times, February 1992.

[8] Guillermo O’DONNEL, “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems (A Latin American View with Glances at Some Post-Communist Countries)”, World Development, Vol. 21, No. 8, Aug. 1993, pp. 1355-1369.

[9] Daron ACEMOGLU, James A. ROBINSON, “Persistence of Power, Elites, and Institutions”, American Economic Review, Vol. 98, No. 1, 2008, p. 290.

[10] Devra MOEHLER, Staffan LINDBERG, “Narrowing the Legitimacy Gap: The Role of Turnovers in Africa’s Emerging Democracies”, Afrobarometer Working Papers, 2007, p. 4.

[11] Wayne MERRY, “Autumn 1993 through American Eyes”, Russia beyond the Headlines, [], October 3, 2013.

[12] Larry DIAMOND, Juan J. LINZ, Seymour Martin LIPSET, Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America, LynneRienner, Boulder, 1989, p. xvii.

[13] Of course, the actual figure is the result of more complex calculations.

[14]             Alfred STEPAN, Cindy SKACH, “Constitutional Frameworks and Democratic Consolidation: Parliamentarianism versus Presidentialism”, World Politics, Vol. 46, No. 1, Oct. 1993, p. 4.

[15]             Steven FISH, “Stronger Legislatures, Stronger Democracies”, Journal of Democracy, 17, Jan. 2006, pp. 5-20.

[16]             José Antonio CHEIBUB, Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007, p. 21.

[17]             Juan LINZ, “The Perils of Presidentialism”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1990, p. 52.

[18]             Jose Antonio CHEIBUB, Adam PRZEWORSKI, Sebastian SAIEGH, “Government Coalitions and Legislative Success under Presidentialism and Parliamentarism”, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 34, 2004.

[19]             Mark JONES, Electoral Laws and the Survival of Presidential Democracies, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, 1995, p. 38.

[20]             Arend LIJPHART, Modele ale democraţiei. Forme de guvernare şi funcţionare în treizeci şi sase de ţări, Polirom, Iaşi, 2000, pp. 32-33.