Do Presidential Systems Imperil Democratization

How and to what extent have the Presidents of Russia (Vladimir Putin) and Venezuela (Hugo Chavez) influenced the democratic consolidation of their countries?

Seminar Paper, 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



In political science it is commonly accepted that institutional choices affect the outcome of a political system. This essay will analyze in what ways presidential systems influence democratic consolidation. Analyzing and comparing two states, Venezuela and Russia it will be shown how, and to what extent presidential systems and the current presidents of the analyzed countries imperil democratization. Democratization will not be regarded as a status but as a process where democracy has to develop and its quality can increase or decrease. Both countries went through a transition, Russia in the early 90s, Venezuela in the 1950s but neither of them is consolidated yet as will be shown.

The essay begins with definitions of democracy and presidentialism. After a chapter on the historical context of both countries the effects of presidentialism are analyzed in the main part giving a theoretical overview first, and then the two countries are analyzed separately and are finally compared. The second chapter addresses the institutions, the third political and civil rights and the fourth civil society. In the fifth other problems independent from presidentialism are described. In the conclusion the main findings will be summarized.

Defining democracy

According to Dahl “contestation open to participation”[1] are the most important elements of a democracy. Many of the recent definitions of democracy are built on Dahl’s approach but expand upon it. Huntington identifies twentieth century democracies as political systems with fair, honest and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes. This means that the civil and political freedoms to speak, publish, assemble and organize must be guaranteed because without those, political debates and electoral campaigns are hardly possible.[2] In order to create a more far-reaching definition it will be expanded by Merkel’s concept of “embedded democracy”.[3] Embedded democracies consist of five partial regimes. First, the electoral regime guarantees free and fair elections and the passive right to vote. Elections are therefore sanctioning mechanisms that may be periodically used as processes of horizontal accountability. Second , political rights guarantee the citizens’ freedom rights. The role of the media, especially the private media that should have considerable influence is emphasized. Third, civil rights are negative rights of freedom. They protect the citizens from the state power and set barriers that prevent individuals or minorities from being oppressed by majority decisions. Fourth, division of power and horizontal accountability mean that lawful actions are controlled by mutually interdependent and autonomous bodies, namely the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. So, the executive power can be limited by a mechanism of checks and balances by constitutionally legitimated actors. Fifth “the effective power to govern” means that non-democratically legitimated actors like the military or other actors do not have decision-making power in any political domain.[4] In this essay I will use these two definitions to analyze the impact of presidentialism on democratization.

Defining Presidentialism

To define the Presidential form of government Lijphart identifies several key characteristics. In a purely presidential system the head of government is elected for a constitutionally prescribed period. A legislative vote of no confidence is not intended. Furthermore, the president is selected by voters either directly or via an electoral college. Thirdly, presidential systems have one-person, non-collegial executives. The members of a presidential cabinet are meant to be advisers or subordinates of the president who can make important decisions without or even against the advice of the cabinet.[5] Shugart/Haggard identify a fourth peculiarity of presidential systems, namely the veto power or other legislative authority the president holds in the policy-making process.[6] So, both countries analyzed in this essay are presidential systems, as all the four characteristics apply to them.

Comparing Russia and Venezuela

Historical Context

Russia’s transition to democracy began in 1989 initiated by Gorbachev, the then-president of the USSR.[7] After its breakdown and Russia’s independence the Russian democratization process continued, lead by a coalition of communists supporting the new President Yeltsin.[8] “Democratization, marketization and international integration”[9] were the three goals to be achieved by Yeltsin’s government although there was disagreement on how to achieve them. Debates over all of them determined the political agenda of the 1990s. Concerning the marketization, privatization in the 1990s enabled a small group to rapidly accumulate a fortune. These economic magnates played an important role in the political process, since they supported Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996. This partly created the still remaining clientelistic structures.[10] The constitution, adopted in 1993, gave Russia a degree of political stability but it gave too much power to the president. Although it ensured the president’s power to drive through the necessary reforms the presidency’s power was not sufficiently limited and lacked accountability. Therefore the decision-making process was excluded from the public and small groups around the president made the important decisions.[11] This explains the weakness of the Russian party system. The most successful parties in Russian elections are the so called “parties of power”[12] such as Our Home is Russia or United Russia which are defined by their support for the Kremlin or for the president.[13]

Venezuela, on the other hand, established democracy in 1958 after the end of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship. For the next 20 years Venezuela enjoyed the highest economic growth of all Latin American countries and political stability. However repression was still existent while economic growth was dependent on oil production.[14] Political stability was ensured by the pact of Punto Fijo, that regularized the alternation of power between the two main parties AD and COPEI in order to exclude any challengers. The economic collapse that began in the early 1980s lead to a decline of real per capita income of 27% between 1979 and 1999.[15] Moreover, several civil associations and groups like CEDICE or Grupo Roraíma emerged during the 80s together with NGOs and neighbourhood movements that expressed the peoples’ disappointment with the inflexible and deadlocked system that was characterized by mismanagement and could not satisfy the peoples’ needs any longer.[16] As a result, the formally stable system broke down. As the political system and its political class lost their support and their legitimacy, the political outsider Chavez who had tried to take government in a coup was elected president in 1998. He won largely due to the fact that he promised to completely change Venezuela’s political system and introduce a Bolivarian revolution, while blaming the former leaders for everything that went wrong in Venezuela during that time.[17]

From the historical perspective Venezuela and Russia are two very different countries. Russia’s transition from a communist authoritarian regime to a democracy began in the 1990s while Venezuela had already established democracy in 1958, but had never entirely finished the consolidation process. Nevertheless both countries face similar problems, which will be discussed in more detail.


In presidential systems presidents enjoy eminent legitimacy and strength because they were popularly elected. Furthermore constitutional powers are guaranteed to them consisting of the presidential veto power and the ability to govern by decree. The situation leads to an executive dominance over the legislative.[18] This is especially true for Latin American countries that often suffer from “hyperpresidentialism.[19] However, in both countries analyzed, executive dominance exists, which will be examined in more detail in this chapter along with its specific consequences. Executive dominance creates several problems. First of all it causes agency problems between citizens and public officials. Abrupt policy change and unpredictable action is more likely to happen if the decision-making depends on a president and not on a parliament.[20] Furthermore, presidential systems create a “winner take all” -situation.[21] While parliaments are able to reflect social and ideological diversity to a certain extent, presidents can gain office with support of only a small part of the electorate. This is also true for the cabinet. In presidential systems the president appoints the members who depend only on him. It is not likely that come from different parties like in a coalition government. In addition the decision-making process in legislatures is meant to be more transparent because it requires debating and voting with public access.[22]

The dominance of the Russian President over the legislative branch is distinct. The 1993 constitution gave extensive powers to the president and Putin increased them during his presidency. He can direct the decision-making process through decrees, vetoes, legislative proposals, and by appointing the prime minister and some cabinet members[23] who are directly accountable to him.[24]


[1] Dahl 1971: p. 5

[2] Huntington 1991: 7

[3] Merkel 2004

[4] ibid.

[5] Lijphart 1999: 117 ff

[6] Shugart/Haggard 2001

[7] White 2007

[8] Gitelman 2005

[9] Sakwa 2005: 6

[10] Sakwa 2005

[11] ibid.

[12] White 2005: 82

[13] ibid.

[14] Wilpert 2007

[15] Wilpert 2007: 13

[16] Levine 2002

[17] Wilpert 2007

[18] Lijphart 1999

[19] Linz 1994: 5

[20] Carey 2003

[21] Linz 1994: 14

[22] Carey 2003

[23] Such as minister of defense and internal affairs

[24] Willerton 2005

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Do Presidential Systems Imperil Democratization
How and to what extent have the Presidents of Russia (Vladimir Putin) and Venezuela (Hugo Chavez) influenced the democratic consolidation of their countries?
University of Bath  (Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences )
Transitions to Democracy
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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457 KB
Presidential, Systems, Imperil, Democratization, Presidents, Russia, Putin), Venezuela, Chavez)
Quote paper
Max-Emanuel Hatzold (Author), 2008, Do Presidential Systems Imperil Democratization , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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