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Global Affairs

The perils of 'presidentialism'

From Latin America to Europe, countries with elected presidencies often see conflict between powerful presidents and the elected government of the day

LONDON • She was defiant to the end: "I will resist through all legal means," Ms Dilma Rousseff, the then President of Brazil, told her country's legislators. Still, her defiance came to nothing: Ms Rousseff was impeached and suspended from office by the Brazilian Congress.

The fact that the leader of the world's seventh-biggest economy could be pushed out of office in this way is noteworthy in itself. But the Brazilian episode is of greater significance.

It acts as a reminder of the perils and limitations of constitutional systems in which both the head of state and the Parliament are directly elected, potentially blurring the distinction between the powers of the two.

And that's a condition which exists in other countries as well, giving rise to constitutional difficulties which can lie dormant for decades, until they suddenly erupt, paralysing the life of nations.

Ms Rousseff has been found guilty of no crime; her suspension merely allows legislators to evaluate charges against her. And these charges are in themselves fairly spurious: She is accused of "manipulating" national accounts, allegedly in order to mask the country's true economic conditions. Nor are those about to judge her morally qualified: At least half of Brazil's legislators are suspected of corruption. In short, Brazil's first woman president lost office as a result of political manoeuvring, one made worse by a faulty constitutional system.

One would have thought that a country which has experienced six Constitutions and three military coups in one century would be extra careful about distributing political power, but Brazil's current Constitution gives the nation's president huge prerogatives: The person is not only head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but also appoints all Cabinet ministers and can even issue laws. The current Brazilian arrangement is a US-like presidency on steroids.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

But unlike the US, where Congress has always been dominated by only two parties, the Brazilian Congress is home to over 30 parties, with none of the US traditions of mediating disputes between Parliament and head of state.

Ultimately, Ms Rousseff fell because she was a poor communicator and proved incapable of engaging with her Congress. She forgot that, regardless of the direct electoral mandate she enjoyed, the Brazilian Congress possessed another power copied from the US - that of being able to impeach her, to remove her from office.

The Brazilian crisis is a classic example of what happens when the vanity and incompetence of politicians collides with the reality of a poorly written Constitution.

It is tempting to argue that Brazil is an isolated case; in neighbouring Argentina, an equally vast Latin American country, power was recently transferred from one directly elected president to another smoothly.

PRESIDENTIAL CLASHES WITH PARLIAMENT

Sadly, however, that's the exception rather than the rule, for the reality is that in many other Latin American countries, the clash over "hyper-presidentialism", between all-powerful presidents and resentful Parliaments, is endemic. Over the past three decades, no fewer than 17 Latin America presidents were forced out of office before the end of their mandates.

The saddest current example of a similar clash between Parliament and a directly elected president is, of course, Venezuela. After the party of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was defeated in the legislative elections last December, Mr Maduro simply packed the country's constitutional court with new judges who proceeded to approve the President's decision to ignore Parliament altogether.

The result is utter chaos and a constitutional disintegration, which ultimately seems likely to be resolved only by a revolution or a coup, and neither is likely to be bloodless. "They're all crazy in Venezuela" and Venezuelan leader Maduro is "mad as a goat", Mr Jose Mujica, the former president of Uruguay, said over the weekend. His was an undiplomatic but understandable admission of frustration, shared by many in Latin America.

Most of these constitutional difficulties were actually predicted from the time Latin America emerged from its latest bout of military dictatorship during the 1980s.

It was then that Professor Juan Linz, a distinguished Latin American expert and political science academic at Yale University, wrote his seminal works, warnings against "the perils of presidentialism".

Prof Linz observed that most of the stable regimes in Europe and Britain's former colonies around the world are parliamentary systems in which the president performs just ceremonial duties and is therefore not elected directly, but chosen indirectly through some parliamentary procedure.

Prof Linz cautioned Latin America against ignoring this model and going instead for a directly elected powerful presidency, because he believed that this would generate trouble with Parliaments, which will be competing for the same popular legitimacy.

Nobody listened to him then, as one Latin American country after another rushed to create directly elected presidencies. But the late Prof Linz's warnings were prophetic.

EUROPEAN EXAMPLES

Interestingly, however, the temptation to view a directly elected head of state as the highest form of democracy has proven irresistible in some European countries as well.

France has had a powerful executive presidency since the late 1950s, and has frequently paid the price: Prime ministers are invariably used as scapegoats for French presidents and, as a result, they either plot how to become presidents themselves, or try to discredit the president instead. When presidents and prime ministers belong to different parties, France is often in the awkward position of being represented by two people at various European Union meetings.

And in other European countries such as Poland, or the Czech Republic which only recently introduced direct elections for its presidency, frequent clashes between governments and presidents are the staple fare for all politicians, and take more time than debating new legislation.

There are examples when a ceremonial but directly elected head of state works very well with an all-powerful parliamentary government: Ireland is such a case. And there are a few examples where an executive and elected head of state slowly accepts that he has to share more powers with Parliament: That's what happened when Finland joined the European Union and the country's president accepted that the prime minister would represent it in daily European Union activities.

EMPTY PROMISES

Still, just the question of electing a ceremonial head of state by a popular vote creates its own difficulties. Candidates for such ceremonial presidencies have little to say during their electoral campaigns apart, perhaps, from promising to cut ribbons in a better way than their opponents. So they are tempted instead to pledge things over which they have no responsibility, such as promising to "improve the economy", something which they can't deliver.

Countries which elect their presidents indirectly through Parliament are not immune to problems: Two out of the 11 presidents chosen by the German Parliament since World War II had to resign from office because their conduct was called into question. And monarchies, which don't elect a head of state at all, offer no automatic guarantee against bad governance either.

Nevertheless, it is striking that European states in which heads of state have limited powers and are not elected or are elected indirectly have tended to do better in handling national crises. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, aged 90 and chosen only by Parliament, proved to be the only person with sufficient authority to manage his country's domestic political meltdown over the past few years.

King Felipe VI is the only man with the legitimacy to keep Spain on a steady course, as the country staggered on without a government over the past six months, and now faces fresh elections.

And Greeks should congratulate themselves for having a president who is not directly elected; given the country's terrible economic conditions, direct elections for a Greek head of state would have resulted in the rise of an extremist populist, precisely what is happening in another European country, Austria.

A recent study from the German Institute for Global and Area Studies concludes that the problems of strong "presidentialism" in Latin America are here to stay; "the probability of a blanket change to parliamentary democracy is close to zero", claims the report.

Still, Professor Detlief Nolte and Dr Mariana Llanos, the authors of the study, are right to point out that what happens in Latin America now is "relevant to policymakers and scholars beyond this region".

The lesson seems to be that directly elected strong presidencies imply long-term constitutional changes which are often unpredictable, and frequently unwelcome.

And, far from being the most perfect example of democracy in action, ceremonial presidents who are directly elected are also less able to handle real national crises, in comparison with heads of state who may be indirectly elected, but who can tower over the rest through the sheer force of their exemplary personal conduct.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'The perils of 'presidentialism''. Print Edition | Subscribe