Alternatives to Structural Explanations

Accounting for outcomes in places such as Belarus and Bulgaria requires us to look beyond the structural variables we examined earlier. A host of nonstructural variables, as well as structural variables that we did not consider, might also shape regime outcomes. Here we will have a brief look at two nonstructural factors that might influence regime outcomes.

Constitutional Arrangements

One potentially weighty nonstructural factor is the distribution of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. Over the past several decades, a vigorous debate has raged in political science over whether presidentialism or parliamentarism provides the firmer institutional basis for robust democratization. Some scholars tout the advantages of parliamentarism, which are said to include stronger checks on executive power, government that better represents voters’ traits and preferences, and flexibility in governments’ terms in office (Linz and Valenzuela 1994; Stepan and Skach 1993). Other analysts prefer presidentialism. They argue that the stability of new democracies is enhanced by having a powerful elected executive who can stand above partisan and communal divisions and represent the nation as a whole. Presidents are also sometimes seen as being more decisive and capable of carrying out unpopular but needed decisions (Horowitz 1996; Mainwaring and Shugart 1997).

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the field has reached consensus, a preponderance of evidence seems to favor pro-parliamentary arguments (Bunce 2000). Countries in which executive power is constituted on the basis of the outcome of parliamentary elections and in which governments are accountable to parliament often do well in democratization. Spain and South Africa furnish examples. Democracy has succeeded in many countries with powerful presidents and relatively weak legislatures, including Mexico and Argentina. Yet the evidence suggests that presidential systems are more likely to succeed where the chief executive, while wielding formidable clout, nevertheless must contend with a legislature that is also vested with substantial powers. Presidential systems that also feature strong legislatures include Indonesia, Chile, and the United States. Some countries with semipresidential systems that vest substantial power in the legislature, most notably Taiwan, have also performed well in democratization. Countries whose constitutions place the bulk of power in executive presidencies generally fare worse. Backsliding toward authoritarianism following antiauthoritarian breakthroughs in countries such as Kenya, Mali, and the Philippines illustrate the problem.

The post-communist experience boosts pro-parliamentary arguments (Fish 2006). With the exception of Moldova, every country in the region that adopted a parliamentary system has performed better than the expectations of the structural model would predict. Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia are the most striking examples. Countries that embraced parliament-heavy semipresidential systems, namely Mongolia, Poland, and Romania, have also done well. Polities that opted for strong presidents and weak parliaments, notably Russia, Armenia, and Belarus, have been distinct underperformers. Georgia, with its presidential system, has done better than expected, but like Chile, the United States, and Indonesia, Georgia also has a legislature that enjoys substantial authority. What is more, the powers of Georgia’s parliament have actually expanded as a result of recent constitutional reforms (Babeck et al. 2012). Turkmenistan, with its presidential dictatorship, beat the model’s predictions, but the model predicted such a dismal outcome that it would be difficult for Turkmenistan not to have exceeded expectations. The postcommunist experience, when added to the record of other world regions, suggests that executive presidents may have become a stauncher foe of democratic consolidation than have assertive militaries, anti-democratic grassroots movements, or ethnonational separatists.

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