The Regime Change We Need

The Regime Change We Need

Mini Teaser: Democracy fatigue threatens choose-your-color revolutions. Transparency of the executive can revitalize enthusiasm.

by Author(s): Lawrence GrooParag Khanna

Overturning constitutional term limits on the executive is one of the most common signals of the growing influence of an executive bent on consolidating governing power. President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, arguably Latin America's most popular executive, recently received the approval from the Constitutional Court to sit for a second term, which he won decisively in May. That his doing so contradicted earlier pledges to leave office after one term did not dissuade a majority of the Congress from supporting him given the fragility of the country's peace process with the farc rebels. President Uribe's expanded tenure is, by the standards of various North African and Middle Eastern countries, relatively fleeting.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced in June that he would stand for another term despite publicly encouraging democratic reform in the Middle East and his own previous pledges to step down this year at the end of his current term. He is almost certain to win re-election, extending his rule from 1978-2013. And Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, recently shuffled his cabinet in a move that likely presages his intent to amend the constitution-allowing him to run for a third five-year term. In other "reform-oriented" Middle Eastern countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, there is hardly a whisper of any real executive-focused reforms.

An executive who simultaneously enjoys a dominant majority in parliament similarly exploits the presence of checks and balances which exist more on paper than in reality. For example, two scholars researching Latin American governments have argued that historically the region's states favor presidential systems, but that these governments are only effective when the president also controls parliament. In other words, successful presidentialism in Latin America depends on the absence of any "veto party."2 Venezuela is a good example of this phenomenon. Prior to Hugo Chavez's recent electoral "landslide" (in which at most 15 percent of the population voted), the opposition had already collapsed, leaving the new parliament with little ability to resist Chavez's plans to extend his presidency and expand his powers. In Nigeria, by contrast, Obasanjo's recent move to amend the 1999 constitution to allow him-as well as state governors-to sit for a third consecutive term was flatly opposed by a majority of the Nigerian Senate, which was clearly uncomfortable with the further consolidation of power within the executive branch.

While it is easier, in the short run, for the United States and EU powers to conduct relations with a strong executive counterpart (there is little glory to be earned in negotiating bilateral treaties or trade deals with unwieldy legislatures or impersonal bureaucracies), there is also a risk. Encouraging the consolidation of executive power in countries with weak democratic institutions is a slippery slope. The temptation to muddle through in doing business with reform-deviant super-executives has always been strong for the United States, itself governed by a presidential system. The man or woman across the table is clearly in charge, and personal rapport can be built. In the case of Russia, the Clinton Administration became more than comfortable with Boris Yeltsin, and President Bush subsequently forged an early rapport with Yeltsin's chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. But this early coddling has proved an embarrassment of sorts; Putin has carried Russia ever further from democracy, and U.S.-Russian relations are more acrimonious following Vice President Dick Cheney's recent public criticism of Putin's anti-democratic behavior.

Whether the rise of these strong executives constitutes a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of the next phase of democratic backsliding, Western efforts to promote governance reform are in question. Indeed, each year, the U.S. government and development institutions like the World Bank commit billions of dollars to further governance reform in dozens of different countries. The failure of these Western aid and reform programs to address the fundamental and central character of executive power is one critical explanation for their very mixed record in the post-Cold War era.3 Though promoting effective democratic governance in developing and transitional countries is now a central goal of U.S. national security policy, very few mechanisms have actually been developed to effectively contain, decentralize or counter-balance executive power. In explaining the underlying factors for these equivocal results, the General Accounting Office (GAO) as well as several analyses frequently note a lack of domestic "political will" for the concerned reforms. In fact, governance reform is often necessary precisely because of the lack of political will, which is the measure of the extent to which a country's political leadership is willing or able to endorse and achieve a particular reform or set of reforms. And in most democratic governments, the political leadership of the country is synonymous with the executive, whether in parliamentary or presidential systems.

One emerging lesson from the rise of executive power in fragile democracies is the realization that in targeting government reform, no outside donor or agency can be neutral with respect to the executive. The reform measures they support either buttress or undermine the executive's interests, and the leader in turn endorses, ignores or blocks potential structural and policy changes. Rather than digging a moat around the executive and hoping for the best, the World Bank and other donors should recognize the power of the executive in shaping governance and make executive reform a central plank of their assistance programs. Indeed, there is little point in initiating or supporting ambitious governance reform programs when the executive itself lacks the means to systematically implement and sustain those reforms.

In most cases where the West seeks decentralization of executive power, parliamentary systems are a better fit and more desirable than presidential ones. In this respect, Europe may possess superior expertise to the United States, with more experience based not only on its own parliamentary systems but also on the past decade of integrating new members into the European Union, rewriting constitutions and laws in the process. In Ukraine, for example, the EU was more attentive than the United States to Yuschenko's reluctant backsliding on decentralizing power, while devoting greater efforts to reforming Ukraine's parliamentary system.

For its part, the United States can be more proactive in presidential systems such as Serbia, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Peru. In these cases, executive leaders and their top advisors should embrace outside assistance to ensure their capacity to institutionalize reform programs-or risk losing that assistance altogether. There will always be cases, such as Uzbekistan, where the executive becomes paranoid and rejects international assistance out of fear and suspicion of their orchestrating a choose-your-color revolution. But even here there is a range of options to nudge the regime back on track, such as barring officials from travel (as the EU has done in Uzbekistan and Belarus) or pressuring to legalize certain opposition parties (as the United States and EU have done in Zimbabwe).

Because a non-democratic executive is the archetype of a leader who responds to incentives, the international community can and should develop better instruments to address and change those incentives when necessary. Pressure to increase the transparency of the executive office and the policy-making process it supports is one place to start, and certain forms of aid provided by the U.S. government and other donors can be made conditional upon this. Such interventions also provide parliament, reform-minded civil servants and opposition party members with greater confidence that the executive is being managed in a way that institutionalizes democratic reforms, rather than an individual's power base.

Lawrence Groo has advised governments in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America on policy and structural reforms. Parag Khanna is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Second World, forthcoming from Random House.


1 Only half of the 25 member countries of the European Union (EU) publish information on the staff of the executive office on official government websites, and only eight countries detail the specific structure and composition of the executive office. Most developing countries fail to disclose even basic information on the president's executive office, although there are a few notable exceptions-South Africa's government provides cell phone numbers of top advisors to President Thabo Mbeki.

2 Josep M. Colomer and Gabriel L. Negretto, "Can Presidentialism Work Like Parliamentarism?" Government and Opposition (2005), pp. 60-89.

3 Over the last 15 years, a series of largely overlooked U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reports has found that U.S. assistance programs have had limited and inconsistent impact. In 1993 the gao noted that judicial reform assistance programs in Latin America had "experienced serious problems, resulting in a portfolio of marginally successful projects." Another gao report eight years later documented how former Soviet-bloc countries receiving U.S. assistance had "not clearly adopted on a wide scale the new concepts and practices . . . [i]n fact, the rule of law appears to have actually deteriorated in recent years in several of these countries."

Essay Types: Essay