Saving Democracy in Latin America

Under the leadership of Venezuela’s president and former failed military coupster Hugo Chávez, self-declared Marxist, a number of Latin American countries in the ALBA alliance are moving towards what they call more “popular democracy.” Fidel Castro calls it communism, though.

The call for this “popular democracy” has reached also Honduras, where former president Manuel Zelaya argued that the people have a right to decide their own destiny, and therefore nobody should object when he was to hold a referendum that would lead to the constitution of the republic being thrown out. Never mind that the poll was fixed, and never mind that it had not been decided in democratic order. If The People does something, it has to be approved. And now the new president, Porfirio Lobo, is using the same arguments, the same words, while trying a different strategy that at the end of his term will lead to the same result: The constitution being thrown out so that he can be re-elected.

While neither of the two gentlemen say openly that their re-election is the one and only purpose of the maneuvers, one can deduce as much, since no other purpose would explain their acts.

I’m the first to admit that Honduras needs some reforms to decrease corruption and increase the rule of law and democracy. What these presidents are doing is, however, the polar opposite – while managing to convince part of the population that they are doing it to help them. It’s the classical trick of popular tyranny, practiced for thousands of years.

Forms of government, with Presidential Republic - the present form of government in Honduras - in the center.
Forms of government, with Presidential Republic - the present form of government in Honduras - in the center. Chávez, Zelaya, and the boys want to go left and make the parliament weaker. Experience shows more democracy is found to the right, with a stronger parliament. Click for full size.

Honduras – as most of Latin America – has a Presidential Republic form of government today (center in the illustration). Chávez’s “Socialism in the 21st Century” changes the constitutions to undermine the democratic institutions and introduce organizations that are outside institutional control (left in the image). Adolf Hitler did precisely the same thing to undermine the democratic checks and balances. They claim that it is done to give more popular democracy, but it is done at the expense of rule of law. The only one who really benefits is the president – now turned dictator.

A change that can be made totally legally in Honduras, without running afoul of the articles “cut in stone”, is to go to the right instead. A parliamentary democracy increases the rule of law and decreases corruption, there is empirical data to support that. It also provides a better protection against coups such as the one attempted by Zelaya.

The democracy can thus be strengthened by Congress, today, without changing the fundamental form of government. It will still be a Republic, the President will still be separate from Congress and elected directly by the people for a single four-year term. The only change is that his cabinet must be approved by Congress, and that Congress can fire them if they disapprove of their work. Also, the decisions must be taken by the Cabinet in a quorum, although formally it is the President as the head of the executive who will sign off on them.

Democracy in Latin America is under attack. With this little graph I hope that I have illustrated what can done to protect and improve democracy on the continent instead.

An earlier post on a similar topic: http://blog.erlingsson.com/?p=3319

Why Parliamentary Republics beat Presidential Republics

Parliamentary republics have separated the roles of head of state  and head of government. They are thus quite  similar to parliamentary monarchies, but the head of state is an elected president rather than a king or queen. Parliamentary constitutions are based on the premise that all power emanates from the people, and that the power is vested in their elected representatives in congress between the elections – just like the shareholders of a corporation elect a board of directors to manage business between the annual meetings.

Parliamentary constitutions are based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people, whereas presidential republics are based on the principle of separation of powers.

In practice this means that the government is dependent on the support of the congress, since the congress has the power to dismiss the head of government (and thus all of his cabinet). While in a presidential republic it would take a recall vote to depose the president (and thus all of his cabinet) for political reasons, in a parliamentary republic the cabinet can be dismissed by a vote in the parliament on short notice. This gives more political control over the government, and gives a voice to a larger segment of society.

The parliamentarians are elected in such a way as to represent the full range of diversity in the country, and proportional to the actual situation in the electorate. This is important; there cannot be one-person districts, because if so, a large percentage of the constituents may end up lacking representation. How large? Well over 50%, perhaps up to 67% or so, thanks to gerrymandering. If one third rules over two thirds, is that democracy? In a parliamentarian system with proportional representation, all parties larger than some 5% of the electorate can be represented in the parliament in proportion to their actual support.

A president only needs 50.01% of the electorate to win, and less if the vote counting is not proportional (as in the USA). Furthermore, presidential republics tend to be two party systems, just one up from one party systems. Thus, to buy the presidency it is enough to buy two candidates. It is self-evident that it is much harder to buy the government in a parliamentarian system, since you would have to buy the support of a majority of the congressmen.

Empirical Evidence

In a report from the World Bank titled “Accountability and Corruption – Political Institutions Matter” (World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2708, 2001) the authors conclude that:

“The main results show that political institutions seem to be extremely important in determining the prevalence of corruption. In short, democracies, parliamentary systems, political stability, and freedom of press are all associated with lower corruption. Additionally, we show that common results of the previous empirical literature on the determinants of corruption – related to openness and legal tradition – do not hold once political variables are taken into account.” (my emphasis)

Also the political stability is higher in parliamentary systems. In How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2001), Robert A. Dahl writes that since 1950, only 22 nations have managed to remain stable with no coups or other discontinuity of the constitutional order. Of those 22, only 2 are presidential republics (USA and Costa Rica). The remaining 20 are parliamentary, 11 republics and 9 monarchies.

As for rule of law, see a previous post on Rule of Law Index 2010.

There is thus empirical evidence that parliamentary democracies:

  • offer better protection against coup d’états
  • foster less corruption
  • foster more rule of law