Yesterday I indulged in a little make believe scenario to show how a parliamentary regime could help diffuse tense political situations such as the one Mexico is experimenting now. In fact, a reader sent in the comment section an article from Valenzuela discussing the problems of Mexican presidential system and suggesting what I had just discussed. Certainly on this matter I am not an original thinker: many people in Latin America are concerned about that populist and messianic culture which is now fueled by the mediatization of society. Thus a parliamentarian system would go a long way in protecting us from such curse.
Now, before doing a general overhaul of all of our constitutions, one should be aware that a parliament rule has its limitations. The Weimar Republic, a parliamentarian system hailed at the time as a promising democratic regime could not stop the rise to power of Hitler. Italy and France were paralyzed for decades by parliamentarian instability forcing France to go into a semi presidential system while Italy still keeps trying various methods to try to make its governments last more than a few months.
In other words, there is no simple solution to obtain a stable and democratic government, and all solutions are vulnerable to major social crisis which blast away through any democratic protection one can have installed. Be it Weimar, be it Caracas circa 1999.
The history of presidential government in the Americas
Except of Canada and the United States, all American countries developed from either simplified cultures or organized theocratic states where the top ruler was, well, the top dog. The arrival of the Spaniard did not change much the situation as by their nature, forged in an 800 year war against North African Islam, the Spaniards of the times were a violent authoritarian crowd. Even more the primitives like Pizarro that came to the Americas to seek good fortune at the expense of whomever might cross their path.
Independence came. In the North first where the English descendants had at least the good fortune to come from the rule of law, even if the natives and the slaves did not get any benefit from it. The incredible distances, considering the means of communication of the time, implied that there was a need of a reasonably strong government to protect the nascent United States, but also a strong local organization to deal with the varied local challenges. People today tend not to realize that in 1786 Boston had very little in common with Savannah, be it in settlement, economy, religion or customs. This, besides the luck of having people like Jefferson, Madison or Franklin at the fountain head, explains why the United States started as a federal presidential system with solid checks and balances. Amazingly history has proven the United States to be the only successful presidential system, surviving tremendous events such as the Civil War, the Great Depression, Segregation, 2 World Wars.
When Independence came into the Southern half of the hemisphere some forward thinkers, including Simon Bolivar, though of ways to copy the United States model. But this was simply impossible: local variations were too strong, political divisions too entrenched (the Vice Royalties had taken care of that) and the geography simply impossible. Let’s not forget that in the early United States it was reasonably easy to go from Savannah to Boston and any other place in the country through maritime routes. In 1830 going from Caracas to Bogota was just a major endeavor, fraught with all sorts of perils that included shipwrecking in the Caribbean, drowning in the Magdalena, banditry everywhere. Boston to Savannah had it easy with just a shipwreck risk.
Thus federalism became soon a chimera but the presidential idea remained. Adding to it the strong man cultural heritage one can understand better why the XIX century, and the best part of the XX where for all countries a regular to irregular succession of caudillos. Curiously San Martin might have been the one of the liberation leaders to understand better that the time of democracy had not come: he thought that the establishment of a local monarchic system until people were ready for more self relying options was a good option. If did not do him any good as he soon left for an European exile.
And then came the radio. Peronism in Argentina was probably the first one to use this tool to whip up the masses for whatever political objective was required. Since then media have more or less helped different strong men across the continent. The most recent Frankenstein like creation is Chavez who has allied simplistic hodgepodge of ideas with strong charisma to wreak havoc in more countries than Venezuela. Chavez knows full well the power of media, he knows he owes his rise to power to them, he finds it as the most powerful check to his excessive ambition at home, and thus he even created his own media empire at home and outside through Telesur.
How to come out of the presidential curse?
We can see some attempts. For example Brazil is cultivating the idea of a strong federal state, like the US. Then again Brazil has the size and diversity that almost forces it to go that way if democracy and national unity are to survive. The population differences between Porto Alegre and Salvador are too big to establish a unique way of life for the country.
Of course everywhere folks suggest that a clear separation of powers could go a long way to control any imperial presidency. But so far the only LatAm countries that can claim some success on this approach are Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica, two of them small enough to simplify the task. But no large LatAm country can claim to have a democratic rule of law system the way we see in Europe or Northern America.
The fact of the matter is that no Latin America country has earnestly tried a parliamentarian system. Is it the love of the Strong Man ruler? The caudillo as best way to subjugate the downtrodden masses? Treaties can be written on it. Let’s us limit ourselves here to the obvious: there are only two ways to limit the power of a wanna-be caudillo, either through a strong federal system, or through a parliamentarian system.
In the first case the existence of strong governors that control their own police forces and part of the resources of the state is enough to limit the possible damage that a ruler would try to do from the center of the country. Then again the temptation for the governors to become local chieftains is a danger, and even a reality. Look for example at Argentina where Menem, Saa, Kirchener, and other started as local caudillos until they became the Argentina big shot.
If we consider the authoritarian nature of our culture perhaps it is time to try parliament rule. The basic advantage of this system is that whomever reaches the position of prime minister had had to fight it out among his peer: he is just a “primus inter pares”. The beauty of the system is that any representative in theory can become prime minister if suddenly the parliament decides to do so. Unlikely of course in practice but the mere fact of this possibility is enough to act as a deterrent of sorts. Also in a media age, a parliament is one way to force the ruling class, namely the representatives, to be more in touch with the people. When you hold a chair in the parliament if you want to retain it you MUST go back to your district and let your constituents know of your whereabouts. Party affiliation is not enough, as even if you fall out of favor with your party your constituents might return you anyway if they like you. In a presidential system, and Venezuela today is an extreme example of that, you only require the caudillo to anoint you and your election or reelection is all but assured.
Perhaps it is time to consider this cultural change. All of Europe is parliamentarian or a mix between parliament and a more or less endowed presidency. We can see its success in spite of a disastrous first half of XX century. Do we want to be ruled for ever by the likes of Chavez or Fujimori who came to power through elections only to screw everything once in office? Or mediocre presidents that cannot be controlled like Fox or Kirchner? Or depend on the good will of Uribe or Morales to resist the temptation of autocracy?
In Venezuela the only candidate for December elections that speaks along these lines is Teodoro Petkoff. But he is the less likely to win the election. Chavez, the likely winner wants to modify the constitution to be able to rule for life. Other remote potential winners like Rosales or perhaps even Borges seem to like the idea of a powerful presidency. Thus Venezuelan democracy is still far from becoming a model one, too many wanting to experiment the glories of Miraflores where people come hat in hand to beg for political favors. It is irresistible.