In a recent paper, political scientists Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Nicolás Schmidt and Daniela Vairo dissect the relationship between the phenomenon of presidential hegemony—understood as the executive branch’s capacity to control the legislative and judicial branches—and the pattern of democratic deterioration in Latin America.
Covering a historical period from 1925 to 2016, the three scholars analyze nearly a century’s worth of developments in 18 different democratic regimes in Latin America. The study reveals that presidential hegemony is a significant factor in democratic instability. Through the deterioration of the checks and balances of democracy, hegemonic presidents gain control over the state to weaken the opposition. And by weakening opponents, they expand their control over other democratic institutions, further consolidating their power over citizens and the state. Eventually, during the process, the escalation of political polarization overcomes the original dispute between the executive and the opposition, affecting all of society.
The paper refers to previous analyses, including one developed by Slovak political scientist Milan Svolik, who distinguishes the processes of authoritarian reversal caused by classic coups from those generated by the manipulation or cancellation of elections by a sitting president. In a study of 145 countries between 1789 and 2008, Svolik shows that in 61 percent of cases, a coup d’état led to democratic erosion; in the remaining cases, which are especially prevalent after the end of the Cold War, leaders who came to power through democratic rules and institutions dismantled those institutions once in power.
The work of Pérez-Liñán and his colleagues reveals how unified control of the executive over other powers enables the ruler to degrade the democratic process. The asymmetries of power embolden the president to go so far as to redefine the democratic groundwork laid out by the constitution. The recent experience of Latin American nations with such presidents—most of whom are located within the Bolivarian axis, though some were part of the 21st century neoliberal wave—demonstrates this tendency. The anti-democratic strategy of consolidating executive power follows what is by now a well-worn script: convening new legislatures and constituent assemblies with over-representation of the ruling party, appointing authorities parallel to those who have been elected by citizens or independently appointed by previous leaders, railing against and undermining autonomous branches of government, and attacking the media, civil society and prominent members of the opposition. If these indicators of democratic deterioration are not addressed, history tells us we will be condemned to relive this repeatedly, almost always in a worse fashion than its original manifestation.
At a time when Latin America is celebrating its fourth decade of zigzagging democratic progress, each country in the region exists under its own threat of the deterioration of its institutions, rights and civic coexistence. Countering any democratic backsliding driven by the executive branch is as relevant as eliminating corruption, the deficit of the rule of law and the scourges of inequality, violence and poverty that plague Latin America’s democracies. It’s time to start to focus on this issue too, to both better understand it and prepare to address it.
Armando Chaguaceda is a political scientist and historian. He teaches at the University of Guanajuato.