Presidential problems in the Americas

With four and a half months until the Olympics open in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil remains gripped by political crisis. President Dilma Rousseff is quoted this morning saying that attempts to impeach her amount to “a coup” and identifying her cause with the survival of democracy.

Meanwhile her appointment of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to be her chief-of-staff – intended not just to shore up the government but also to shield him from prosecution for money-laundering – remains stalled in the courts. A large-scale corruption scandal and pressing economic problems have seen Rousseff’s approval ratings plummet, although there is no allegation that she has been personally corrupt; the impeachment charges relate to dodgy government accounting.

Roussef was elected to succeed Lula in 2010 and re-elected in 2014 by a narrow majority, winning 51.6% in the second round against the centre-right’s Aécio Neves. She also won a substantial majority in Congress, but that depended on a coalition embracing a large and diverse number of parties – some of which have already jumped ship or are likely to do so.

Even so, reaching the two-thirds majority necessary for an impeachment will not be easy, and the process could be highly traumatic. According to the Guardian, the speaker of the lower house, a former ally of the president, has moved on the impeachment partly as a way of protecting himself from bribery charges.

At a time when so much attention is fixed on the increasingly bizarre presidential contest in the United States, it all prompts some thoughts about the weaknesses of presidential government.

I’ve often said that the American electoral system was state-of-the-art in the 1830s, but its actual constitutional structure, including the strict separation between legislature and executive, is a creature of the 18th century. It was based on James Madison’s interpretation of Montesquieu’s misdescription of the British constitution, which had worked in somewhat similar fashion a century earlier but by the 1780s had moved much closer to what we know as responsible government.

Since then, the presidential system has been copied wherever American influence has been strong, including most of Latin America and parts of Asia. Parliamentary systems predominate in Europe and the former British colonies.

Simply looking at the record, I think you have to say that parliamentary systems have done a better job of preserving and institutionalising democracy and the rule of law. Outside of the United States itself, it’s hard to point to a presidential system that has not repeatedly fallen prey to coups, dictatorship or serious political violence.

Of course, such things happen in parliamentary systems as well, but the latter seem to be able to boast a much larger proportion of success stories.

The sort of crisis that Brazil is experiencing appears to be disturbingly common in the region’s presidential systems. No doubt there may be cultural or other factors at work as well, but at least some of the blame should be borne by the constitutional structure.

Countries where the government depends on a parliamentary majority are better equipped for gradual adjustment to political crisis. Backbench pressure can force a shift in policies, ministers can be questioned and exposed, ineffective leaders can be replaced, public opinion can make itself felt through a number of different channels. These mechanisms don’t always work well, but they do work.

A system where the executive’s popular mandate is concentrated in a single person seems to be less flexible. A hostile legislature can gum up the workings of government but is rarely able to play a constructive role. Removal of a president who goes rogue is at best a difficult and divisive process. And the nature of the position probably attracts more autocratic personalities in the first place.

These are all vivid considerations as the US contemplates the possibility – still remote, but much less so than it seemed six months ago – of a President Trump. The American constitutional experiment has had plenty of ups and downs in its 227 years, but it’s a long time since it’s looked quite so fragile as it does now.

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