The electoral path to authoritarianism?

Two elections on Sunday are worth watching as examples of an electoral path to authoritarianism. In Venezuela, voters will vote on a series of constitutional amendments that would greatly enhance the power of both the state in the economy and the president within the state. In Russia, voters will vote in legislative Duma elections that are sure to result in the outgoing President’s party winning a massive majority of the seats.

In both cases, we are witnessing the consolidation of authoritarian systems despite ongoing electoral processes and the retention of formal institutions of separated powers.

The Venezuelan referendum features votes on two packages of amendments. Both packages bundle reforms on both economic and social policy claims on the state and powers of the presidency. Of course, one of the reforms would lift the existing term limit on the presidency itself.

Steven Taylor has posted an image of the ballot. He also quotes from

Venezuelans will vote on the reform on December 2nd and will do so in two blocks. Block “A” includes President Chavez’s original proposal, as amended by the National Assembly, which would change 33 articles out of the 350 articles in the constitution. Also included in block A are another 13 articles introduced by the National Assembly. Block “B” includes another 26 reform articles proposed by the National Assembly. Voters may vote “Yes” or “No” on each block.

Steven also posts a link to a PDF of the text of the reforms (in Spanish).

Polls have been somewhat mixed about the chances of the referendum, but it would be surprising if the substantial organizational prowess of the Chavista forces were insufficient to get the proposals over the 50% hurdle. How much over is hard to say. A close vote–either way–would be potentially dangerous, revealing the deep polarization.

Meanwhile, in the event that the referendum loses or is very close, the Chávez camp is already prepared with the charges of CIA fomenting of opposition. James Petras, a well known sociologist and Latin Americanist, was on Democracy Now! this morning discussing these allegations and a supposed memo. (The memo may well be real, but its source was the Chávez government, so there is reason to be skeptical.) And could the CIA be working with Trotskyites? Petras thinks so! (Many leftists flocked to Chávez and then later broke with him, so there are indeed many left-wing organizations among the opposition.)

Petras suggests that there is nothing particularly worrisome about the end of presidential term limits, and notes that the Chávez camp likes to cite cases of long tenure in parliamentary systems (Blair, Howard, and Japan’s LDP are specifically mentioned) as evidence that there is nothing out of the ordinary for democracies to have one party, even one leader, in power for multiple terms, even decades.

The government has argued, with some effectiveness, that in the parliamentary systems you have indefinite terms of office… So they don’t see this as—they don’t describe this as an unusual happening, much more like a parliamentary system, rather than a presidential system, though in this case—

Unfortunately, just as this comparative institutions stuff was getting interesting, the interviewer cut Petras off and changed the subject. But maybe it was just as well, as this is actually very bad comparative politics. There is, of course, nothing that Chávez is proposing that is making the system more parliamentary. Quite the contrary. He is proposing to concentrate ever more authority in his own hands, and to make himself eligible for reelection in perpetuity.

Not even a Howard, a Blair, or a Thatcher ever enjoyed the concentration of power that a president potentially can have for the simple reason that parliamentary systems enforce collective responsibility within the cabinet and promote party-building by the government and opposition alike. There are reasons why very few parliamentary systems have term limits, while such limits on executive tenure exist for virtually all elected presidents who serve as unchallenged head of their government (i.e. without a PM accountable to parliament). There are also reasons why almost all authoritarian leaders that arise within formally parliamentary institutions eventually change the formal institutions to presidential (e.g. Mugabe in Zimbabwe, among many others). While democratic presidential institutions actually put more checks on the chief executive than is the case in some majoritarian parliamentary democracies, there is no escaping the fact that presidential institutions are far more amenable to the electoral path to authoritarianism than are parliamentary.

The president fully controls the cabinet (and, in the absence of an institutionalized legislature with countervailing incentives, may also directly command the bureaucracy). The president runs for office directly and often–as in Venezuela–needs only a plurality of the votes. And the president need not have an institutionalized party as his vehicle for political support. It is feasible to have a party that is little more than a vehicle for placing presidential loyalists in the legislature via the president’s own coattails. As Chávez has.

There are, on the other hand, no particularly good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. And that makes the Russian case all the more interesting. Here we have a vast federal and multi-ethnic country–empire, really–that has been governed under a presidential democracy or semi-democracy since almost the moment that the USSR began to fall apart in 1990. At that point, the Russian legislature chose Boris Yeltsin to be president as part of its assertion of authority against the crumbling USSR institutions.

Yeltsin’s successor as president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, is now wrapping up his second of his constitutionally prescribed maximum two terms. In the legislative election Sunday, Putin will be heading the list of candidates of his United Russia Party. Just under two months ago, he announced intention to continue playing a “major role” in Russian political life.

There has been talk of Putin taking on some, as yet informal, title like “Leader of the Nation.” Yet without a formal institution under his command, he would be unlikely to retain the powerful de-facto role he and his supporters appear to have in mind for him, especially given that the presidency will soon be in the hands of a successor. I remain puzzled as to why Putin did not use his evidently vast political machine and patronage to secure an abolition of the presidential term limit.

One possibility is that Putin will suddenly decide that Russia’s ‘democratization’ requires a move to a parliamentary system, so Putin can be the perpetual prime minister. But then we are up against the fact that, as I noted, there are no really good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. Will Russia embark on one?

Another possibility is suggested in a news item at

It is thought that he will declare a preferred surrogate — the current favourites are Kremlin insiders Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and former minister of defence, or Dmitri Medvedev, chairman of Gazprom (Russia’s largest company) or Viktor Zubkov, whom Putin recently hand-picked as prime minister — to replace him as president.

Then, after winning the presidency, Putin’s successor would resign, paving the way for emergency elections by which Putin could become president again.

Whatever the scenario, it is likely that both Russia’a and Venezuela’s elections on Sunday are further steps in the dismantling of electoral democracies and their transformation into authoritarian regimes.

0 thoughts on “The electoral path to authoritarianism?

  1. I could not disagree more. A prime minister with a disciplined legislative majority has many more opportunities for authoritarianism than a president and there are several historical examples.

    Consider, if you will, the things the former prime minister could do in Australia and compare them with the things available to the Bush administration. Howard could appoint judges without any form of review or confirmation, could pass any law that pleased him (including drastic changes to the electoral act, ending the system of independent Senate inquiries, and unilateral federalisation of industrial relations), could appoint any number of people to public service and other posts without review, ratify any treaty without parliament’s consent, and commit Australia to the Afghan and Iraq wars, also without parliament’s consent.

    The Salazar dictatorship in Portugal remained formally parliamentary throughout its existence as did the Soviet Union. Even among democracies, the absence of checks and balances can lead to distinctly authoritarian styles of government. The state of Queensland during the the long premiership of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen is one example. South Africa between 1949 and 1982 is another. Even Zimbabwe was parliamentary when to became a dictatorship and formally changed to a presidential system after the dictatorships’ establishment.

    While I’d agree there’s a relationship. I’m not at all sure it’s as clear cut as you suggest.


  2. Alan,

    I am not sure how one could describe the Soviet system as even “formally” parliamentary.

    The Zimbabwe example doesn’t further your case, indeed it furthers Matthew’s, as clearly Mugabe saw presidentialism as more conducive to authoritarian governance than a parliamentary system.


  3. What about Malaysia during Mahathir’s 20 year reign as Prime Minister? Malaysia may be the closest to parliamentary authoritarianism. The Barisan Nasional has ran the country since independence.

    What about Slovakia when Meciar was Prime Minister?


  4. I’d argue Russia is already there. Where Putin was concerned with the electoral rules last summer, he’s resorting to overt repression now. This election is just window dressing.


  5. Alan’s rejoinder mixes fully authoritarian systems with fully democratic ones. I am talking about the grey-area systems, where there are competitive multiparty elections, but the executive concentrates authority. It is more or less what O’Donnell calls “delegative democracy,” though I dislike that term.

    Within democracies, I agree that a single-party parliamentary system implies much more concentration of power than does a presidential system (and I said so above). Within fully authoritarian/totalitarian systems (e.g. USSR), it may not matter, though the fact that most of these are indeed formally (and only very formally) parliamentary (a premier and the much less important presidency both chosen by the supine “legislature”) may be significant: The strong extra-institutional party apparatus better ensures its internal dominance by not taking a risk on a separately elected executive (even if the elections don’t mean much).

    In the grey areas, where parties are less well developed and institutionalized than is the case in democratic Westminster-style parliamentary systems or totalitarian party regimes, a dominant “populist” type ruler is far better off with presidentialism. That guarantees concentration over the executive itself, and it allows legislative elections to be run with an allied political machine with little risk of its becoming an effective check unless a party can institutionalize itself independently of the executive’s control.


  6. My previous response was referring mainly to the USSR (and similar institutional systems) when I referred to “fully authoritarian.” I am somewhat less familiar with Portugal under Salazar. However, my understanding is that there was much more limited competition in elections that is the case in the kind of electoral authoritarian systems I have in mind, such as Russia, Venezuela, or formerly Mexico.

    But even if I am understating the degree of formal multiparty electoral competition in Portugal (especially before 1969 when some liberalization was undertaken), were the institutions formally parliamentary? Mackie and Rose refer to their having been direct presidential elections before 1958 (when an opposition candidate won 25% in official results, signalling that having such elections might be dangerous!)

    As for party pluralism in elections, the record seems mixed.

    “Until 1945 candidates for both presidential and legislative elections were limited to supporters of the regime, but a significant number of them were not formally members of the government party the Uniao Nacional. After 1945, opposition candidates were allowed and political censorship was lifted for the month before an election. But no active opposition was allowed at other times and those opposition groups that were allowed to compete sometimes withdrew from the contest on the eve of election day.”

    In other words, it was not strictly parliamentary in institutional format, and there was a higher degree of authoritarian control over elections than in the electoally based systems I was writing about. I do not think Portugal is a contrary case to what I was sketching, though it certainly is more complex.

    The quotation and other institutional and data references here come from Thomas T. Mackie and Richard Rose, The International Almanac of Electoral History, third edition, CQ Press, 1991, pp. 374-5.


  7. Let’s not overlook Bolivia in this discussion. On that see Miguel Centellas, who has had several excellent recent posts, in particular “The Slide into Democradura.”

    Bolivia was also addressed briefly (and approvingly, of course) by Petras in the interview I linked to in the main planting.


  8. I think it is highly significant that Borat praised “Premier” [sic] “George Walter [sic] Bush” as “strong leader”.


  9. For the purists, Article 111 of the 1933 Portuguese Constitution states: “O Governo é da exclusiva confiança do Presidente da República e a sua conservaçao no Poder nao depende do destino que tiverem as suas propostas de lei ou de quaisquer votaçoes da Assembleia Nacional”.

    So, this is a presidential constitution in the sense that the government was not responsible to the Assembly. In 1959, there was an amendment that ended the direct election of the president and replaced it with election by an electoral college, including members of the National Assembly and the corporatist chamber.


  10. What were Portuguese presidential elections like between 1933 and 1959? I assume voting was as regulated as for the Parliament, but what about candidacy? Was there some govt- or self-appointed body, as in Iran or Singapore today, with power to protect the voters from being offered unsuitable presidential candidates?


  11. But Salazar held the office of prime minister, not president, from 1932 to 1970. There were a couple of unsuccessful attempts for independent political figures to be elected president, but they were never a serious threat to Salazar’s control of the state. Formal constitutional provisions are not always definitive. Read, for example, S61 of Australia’s constitution:

    61. The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.

    Mugabe established absolute control as prime minister, not president and only ego led to him taking the office of president and formally presidentialising the constitution.

    No-one has yet contested the South African or Queensland examples. A number of others could be raised from Europe in the 1930s. Fructovoters may like to read Presidents and Assemblies for a more persuasive argument than I’ve yet raised.


  12. In the last direct elections in 1958 there was a serious opposition candidate, general Humberto Delgado. The official results still gave him 25%. He went on exile (realising only a coup could bring Salazar down) and was murdered in 1965.


  13. Regarding Malaysia, indeed it is a parliamentary and mostly authoritarian system. Good example. Of course, the rulers of Malaysia have a multiethnic and multiparty political machine that backs them up. It is not (and was not, under Mahatir) a personalist dictatorship. So, while it looks like and in some ways perhaps is a contrary case to the argument I made above, I do not think it really is, in its essence. The prime ministers of Malaysia since emergency rule was declared in the early 1960s have depended on negotiated consent of their social base to a degree that I simply do not see in cases like Zimbabwe or Venezuela.

    As for Meciar in Slovakia, I doubt that ever qualified as an authoritarian regime, and he was in fact ousted electorally after a fairly short reign.

    Thanks to those who have posted on the Portuguese dictatorship. I am learning a lot about that case!

    And, to back to the themes of the (very formally) parliamentary nature of Communist systems, see the post (and my comment) on Castro at PoliBlog, as excerpted here:

    [AP, quoted by Steven:] Fidel Castro was nominated for a seat in Cuba’s parliament Sunday… If he wins a parliament seat during national elections Jan. 20, he would remain in the running to retain the presidency of Cuba’s supreme governing body, the Council of State.

    [MSS:] Like most other Communist Party states, the institutions of the political system are formally parliamentary, and hence if he were to remain as President he would indeed have to be a member of the parliament.

    I would submit that the degree of extra-parliamentary party organization is the kicker here. The more an authoritarian leadership–including a ruling Communist party, with its totalitarian penetration of society–has it, the more likely it is to rule over a government with a parliamentary institutional form. The less it has it, the more likely it is to be presidential. In this regard, Malaysia looks more like the communist systems, even if by this yardstick, Malaysia looks almost democratic. The Barisan Nasional–a consociational and federal multiethnic electoral coalition–probably could not hold together under the executive concentration that would result if Mahatir had tried to convert the system to presidential. (He also presumably would have had to abolish Malaysia’s unusual monarchy–which may be somewhat of a check on the ruling coalition, though I am uncertain–in order to do so.)

    I find it particularly interesting that Cuba transformed to (very formally) parliamentary institutions when it became communist, despite the strong presidentialist legacy of Cuba and its region more generally, and despite the obvious personalistic nature of Castro’s brand of Communism. And, no, I really do not have a good explanation for that, other than that it fits the communist type and the existence of a powerful, society-penetrating extra-parliamentary party. (Well, OK, there. I guess I do have an explanation, even if it is a blogging one more than an academic one.)


  14. Back to Zimbabwe, I would disagree with Alan that it was only ego that led Mugabe to convert his position to that of presidency. Scratch the surface, and I suspect you will find he was consolidating his position of greater autonomy vis-a-vis his party. So, while Alan is correct that the transformation to authoritarianism began under a parliamentary framework, it was consolidated under a presidential one. I think that is significant, though others may not see it that way, I concede.

    This pattern–become authoritarian under parliamentary forms but convert to presidential–is not unusual. There are several other former British colonies in Africa that followed a similar path, and there is Singapore. I doubt that the egos of someone like Mahatir were notably weaker than that of Mugabe. I don’t find appeal to the leader’s ego especially convincing, as an institutionalist comparative political scientist. (However, I am writing here as a blogger, and I fully recognize that the case would have to be made with stronger evidence than I have attempted here. Maybe a future book…)

    Another example of the pattern would be the USSR. While direct elections were never held, Gorbachev was in the process of converting his position to a fixed-term presidency, thereby freeing himself to some extent from accountability to his ossified party. In South Africa, P.W. Botha obtained a similar institutional reform around the same time. These were both cases of leaders arising from perhaps over-institutionalized authoritarian parties and trying to impose reforms that there was not a full consensus on within the party institution. I often wonder if the new generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders will attempt something similar in the near future.


  15. In terms of comparative analysis, no one has asked why, if both Venezuela and Russia are presidential systems sliding toward authoritarianism, one vote won and the other failed. Is it because one was sliding and the other wasn’t? Or something else?


  16. PW Botha, not de Klerk was not the first executive president of the apartheid regime. Afrikaner nationalism was obsessed with an independent executive as far back as the 19th century Boer republics. They finally achieved this in 1984, so there’s a long-standing ideological background, plus an independent presidency was needed to make the house of mirrors in the 1983 Tricameral Constitution workable.


  17. Alan, of course, you are right. De Klerk was the second “executive president” (as if there were any other kind!), not the first. Thanks for noting that. I corrected the comment above.

    I wonder, if the Afrikaner nationalism was so obsessed with an independent executive (i.e. a presidency), why it took them so long? Of course, as Alan notes, it had to do with the attempt to institutionalize Apartheid through the so-called tricameral parliament.

    Greg: Good question. Chávez miscalculated. Not a very satisfying explanation, to be sure. I think right now the big question is what does he have up his sleeve next? He conceded too readily, given the closeness, not to have a backup plan. I have no idea what that might be.

    Now, if only I had the time to write the book you are all giving me such great material for!


  18. Maybe Putin won and Chavez lost because the former was not seeking an indefinite extension of his possible tenure as president. Maybe this answers not only Greg’s question, but my own, way up there somewhere:

    I remain puzzled as to why Putin did not use his evidently vast political machine and patronage to secure an abolition of the presidential term limit.

    Indefinite eligibility for reelection to an independent office like a presidency is a good deal more threatening to allies who may themselves be seeking the presidency in the future or be looking for ways to maintain their own bargaining power from within the legislature or subnational governments or other organizations.

    Maybe if Chavez had been heading a national list for his party instead of seeking to prolong his potential tenure as president and the powers of that office, he would not have lost so many of his former allies (like Teodoro Petkoff).

    On the other hand, I do not rule out that Putin may yet get his term extension, given his success in turning out the vote for him as “national leader.” Even if that happens, it is possible that he could not have achieved the consensus within United Russia for a term-limit abolition without first having steamrollered all other political forces in a legislative election. (And, no, I have no idea how to test these hunches. Luckily, this is only a comment at a blog and not a prospectus for that book I keep alluding to.)


  19. I grew up in Queensland while “Sir” Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (he awarded himself the knighthood) was Premier. He was a scoundrel who had no regard for the spirit of constitutional democracy, but at every crucial juncture he held back from actually breaking the law. And he would have handed over power had the Labor opposition won a majority of seats.

    True, he did rig the rules against Labor (and the Liberals) as far as he could, but he was abetted by their own incompetence (a former Labor leader and a senior minister have served time in jail for child molestation: I have heard anecdotally that Bjelke knew about this, had a dirt file on Keith Wright via the police Special Branch, and used it to dampen Wright’s effectiveness).

    So I disagree – pace` Dean Wells in “The Deep North” (1981) and Evan Whitton – that Petersen could be classed as a “dictator”. The problem is that the Westminster system relies on a spirit of fair play rather than written rules to make it work. Someone who insists on playing just within the letter of the law (c/f, eg, Petersen’s astute trick in 1974 of having the Queensland Governor issue Senate election writs immediately before Vince Gair officially resigned his Senate seat, so that six seats instead of the normal five were vacant, thus turning a likely 3-2 Labor win into a 3-3 tie) gets an unfair advantage. It is as if the formal written rules for boxing were those of Fight Club. The player who hits his opponent below the belt can then preen with “I have played completely within the rules!”

    [The Queensland Liberals’ incompetence continues to this day. Currently, their 8 MPs (out of 89) in the Queensland Parliament are deadlocked 4-4 over who will be leader. The party machine is considering a rule change to give the State Liberal president a casting vote.]

    One reason why Bjelke-Petersen would never have considered a move to a presidential system is that veneration of the British Monarchy is a cornerstone of Australia’s National/ Country Party. Many Liberals may flirt with the idea of an Australian Republic, but very few Nats, and almost none from Queensland, their stronghold State. Indeed, in 1977 Bjelke-Petersen’s govt amended the State Constitution (simple majority of a unicameral Parliament) to require a referendum to abolish the Monarchy, the office of Governor, or the Governor’s independent discretion in appointing and dismissing a Premier.

    This much professed devotion to the Queen did not prevent Bjelke-Petersen from clashing with the British Govt over choice of Governor in 1976 (the Callaghan Govt rejected his wish to re-appoint Sir Colin Hannah, who had been publicly critical of the Whitlam Labor federal govt; the Brits thought Hannah had compromised the neutrality of the Vice-Regal office). And Bjelke-Petersen himself came to grief in 1977 when his own party voted him out; his attempts to hang on to power were thwarted when the Governor used his independent discretion (see above) to decommission “Sir” Joh. Sweetly ironic.


  20. Another difference is that one was a legislative vote and the other was a referendum on a constitution (albeit with an electoral angle). For Chavez, losing meant he remained in power, so the stakes were lower. He did accept a loss, however, which Putin (as far as I know) never has.


  21. I grew up in Queensland (also known as the Deep North), and fled to New South Wales as a political refugee, I would agree with the Fitgerald Inquiry and disagree with Tom. Fitzgerald found extensive criminality and corruption and recommended prosecutions. Fitzgerald’s report ultimately led to ministers and police commissioners doing gaol time.

    Moreover, outside the theatre of parliament, Fitzgerald detected regular abuses of human rights, especially at the expense of indigenous Queenslanders, although more generally at the expense of anyone opposed to the government. I’d call Joh authoritarian rather than dictatorial, but I would not minimise the various examples of crime and misconduct that occurred on his watch.

    Queensland was a Mississippi, not a Haiti, of the Antipodes.


  22. I would say instead that Queensland was a Newfoundland, not a Haiti of the Antipodes.

    Unlike MS, NF is parliamentary, and has had authoritarian bouts. I may be wrong, but several of the smaller federal sub-units of Westminster systems have been authoritarian, markedly more so than their federal govt’s.


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