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Institutions. Want stable democracy? Get the institutions right! Institutions: humanly devised constraints that shape and guide behavior. Who plays the game, how they play the game, and consequently, who wins and who loses.

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  1. Institutions • Want stable democracy? Get the institutions right! • Institutions: humanly devised constraints that shape and guide behavior. Who plays the game, how they play the game, and consequently, who wins and who loses. • Examples of political institutions: term limits, the Supreme Court, the House of Representatives, campaign finance laws, etc. etc. etc.

  2. Institutions • Do institutions matter? • Traditionally in Comparative Politics: NO. Institutions are subordinate to social, economic, and cultural forces. • More recently: YES. Institutions do not simply reflect culture or economics, they actually shape outcomes.

  3. Presidential Democracy • Original presidential system: ours! But also very common in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Not popular in Europe. • Core element of presidential systems: separation of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. This does not imply that the branches are independent. Rather, it refers to their separate origin and separate survival.

  4. Presidential Democracy • Separate origin: Both branches are elected separately, in different elections. • Separate survival: Both branches are elected for a fixed term, neither can dismiss the other. • Cabinet answers only to president. • Personnel of each branch is non-overlapping.

  5. Presidential Democracy • Implications: • Divided government is possible. • Power is fragmented.

  6. Parliamentary Systems • Original parliamentary system: Great Britain. Very common form of government in Western Europe, former British colonies. • Core element: the executive and legislature are fused. Survival and origin of each branch are not separate.

  7. Parliamentary Systems • Origin not separate: • One popular election fills parliament, then cabinet (the executive) is selected from parliament. • Head of cabinet is the Prime Minister. PM is not directly elected.

  8. Parliamentary Systems • Survival not separate: • Cabinet must “maintain the confidence” of parliament (sustain the support of a majority of MPs) or resign. • Terms of office are not fixed, so cabinet can dissolve parliament and call new elections when it sees fit. • Thus, the executive can dissolve the legislature and the legislature can axe the executive!

  9. Parliamentary Systems • Implications: • Divided governments are constitutionally impossible. • Power is concentrated: cabinets rule with the entire weight of parliament behind them.

  10. Types of Parliamentary Systems • Majority rule: one party has a majority in parliament, can form a cabinet and rule on its own. Power is highly concentrated. (Most common in two party systems). • If no party has a majority (more common in multiparty systems): • Minority rule: a minority party forms a cabinet and rules alone but depends on support from other parties in parliament to stay in office. • Coalition government: formal agreement between multiple parties to form a cabinet and rule together.

  11. The Pres/Parl debate • Do these differences matter? • One argument: YES. Presidential democracies are less stable than parliamentary ones. • The retort: NO. Both systems can be stable or unstable, depending on context. Furthermore, we can’t study them in isolation. They interact with the party system to shape outcomes.

  12. The case against presidentialism • Divided government => Deadlock => War between branches of government => Democratic breakdown. • In contrast, in parliamentary systems, you can’t have divided government, so this never happens.

  13. The case against presidentialism • Because of the fixed term of office, coups are the only way to get rid of a unpopular president. • In contrast, in parliamentary systems, parliaments can remove unpopular cabinets at any time. This produces cabinet instability, but not democratic instability.

  14. The case against presidentialism • Presidentialism is “winner takes all.” The office of the president can’t be shared. The winner gets all of it. The loser gets nothing. Loser gets mad: has a coup!

  15. The case against presidentialism • And the winner gets to rule however he wants – even if he won by a small margin, and even if he won less than a majority. • In contrast, coalition governments in parliamentary systems are more inclusive and force parties to work together. Furthermore, losers continue to play an active role in politics.

  16. The counter-argument • Presidential systems have better “identifiability,” i.e the link between voting and government formation is more transparent. • Presidential systems: very transparent. The candidate with the most votes wins. • Parliamentary systems: when there is no majority, government formation is a result of bargains between parties, not just voting. So transparency is lower.

  17. A hypothetical election result . . . • An election is held and five parties win seats: • The Greens: 45% of the seats • The Reds: 30% of the seats • The Blues: 15% of the seats • The Purples: 10% of the seats • What coalition forms?

  18. The counter-argument • Lower identifiability => Voters peripheral? • Lower identifiability => Less accountability • Accountability: degree to which elected leaders rule in the interests of the electorate. The threat of losing an election is said to promote accountability. • However, if there is a coalition in power: • How do you vote it out if you didn’t vote it in in the first place? • If things are going badly, who do you blame?

  19. The counter-argument • Presidential systems are not necessarily more “winner-takes-all.” • Presidential branch might be this way, but the system as a whole splits and divides power. • Furthermore, parliamentary government can be extremely winner-takes-all, i.e. under majority rule.

  20. The counter-argument • Cabinets can be highly unstable in parliamentary systems, especially when there is no majority. Not the same as democratic instability, but can still be problematic!

  21. The counter-argument • The performance of each of these systems depends the party system. • Parliamentary systems: • Majority rule: stable, high identifiability, winner-takes-all. Most likely with 2 parties. • Coalition government: unstable, low identifiability, inclusive. Most likely with >2 parties.

  22. The counter-argument • Presidential systems: • Divided government is most severe when the President’s party is weak in the legislature • This is most likely when many small parties split the vote. • Thus, we can’t consider presidential and parliamentary systems in isolation. We also have to look at their interaction with the party system.

  23. What about the empirical record? • Most stable democracies since WWII have been parliamentary, not presidential. • Coups are much more common in presidential systems. • Amongst new democracies, countries with parliamentary systems have been more likely to stay democratic.

  24. What about the empirical record? • BUT, correlation is not the same as causation! • Most parliamentary systems are located in Western Europe. Most presidential systems are located in Latin America and Africa. • Western Europe is rich, LA and Africa are poor. • Democracy is established in Western Europe, but not in LA and Africa. • Thus, correlation between democratic stability and parliamentary government may simply reflect the European context of these institutions.

  25. Conclusions • First, prior to debating which institution is best, we must first deal with the more fundamental question: “when are institutions complied with in the first place?” • Second, assuming we can solve this initial problem, then the effects of institutions may indeed be profound. • However, the effect of these institutions cannot be considered in isolation. We have to look at how they interact with other factors, namely, other institutions.

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