Sunday, 3 October 2010
Beyond Blighty: Ecuador and Brazil - a tale of two presidential republics
Public service cuts will no doubt be the main talking point at the Conservative Party conference. Although the cuts will be unpopular with many workers, David Cameron is not risking his life by implementing them. This is not the case for Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador.
Last Thursday, President Correa was shot at and had tear gas thrown at him by this own police and military after the President announced a cut in their pay. Loyal troops were able to rescue Mr. Correa from a hospital where he'd taken refuge, but for short time it looked like the democratically elected President might be forced from power.
Military coup d'états are not uncommon in Latin American countries, Ecuador has seen several coups and military juntas, as have most South American nations. The last coup in Ecuador was just five years ago when President Lucio Gutiérrez was forcibly removed from office at the point of a gun.
The number of coups in that part of the world is partly due to culture, but another reason is the system of government. Almost all Latin American countries are Presidential republics where the head of state is also the head of government and Commander-in-chief, very similar to the system set out in the United States Constitution (once described as America's most dangerous export).
It would be wrong to condemn all Latin American counties. Today voters in Brazil are electing a new President. Opinion polls suggest that Dilma Rousseff will win comfortably and become Brazil's first female President. Brazil is seen as an emerging superpower and a stable government is an important part of this success story, but Brazil's history is not trouble free, having had a few coups of its own in the 1960s. Like Ecuador, Brazil's constitution is very similar to that of the United States.
The text of the US Constitution seems very sensible and democratic. The states are given great autonomy with the Congress to deal with federal issues and a President who acts as a unifying national figure, dealing mainly with foreign policy and defence. When put into practice however, it doesn't work like that. The executive branch is incredibly powerful and there is little accountability for the President. In countries which use versions of the US Constitution (although not the US itself) this has led to dictatorial Presidents who could only be removed by the military in a coup.
In 2008 the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the countries of the world in order of the state of their freedom and democracy. This list was called the 'Democracy Index' and out of the thirty countries classed as 'full democracies' only four were presidential republics (the United States, the Republic of Korea, Uruguay and Costa Rica). Most of the world's presidential republics were classed as 'authoritarian regimes'. By contrast twenty-five out of the world's thirty full democracies have a parliamentary system.
It is no coincidence that former Iberian colonies (which almost universal became presidential republics) have a history of military dictatorships and economic instability, whereas former British colonies (which almost universal became parliamentary democracies) have a long history of stable government and economic prosperity. There are several exceptions of course, but in general parliamentary systems protect democracy.
A parliamentary system gives systemic accountability as the executive is directly answerable to the legislature. If a Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy suddenly became tyrannical, he or she could be removed by their parliamentary party, by the parliament itself, or even by the head of state. It is incredibly difficult to peacefully remove a President in a presidential republic (hence the number of military coups in such countries).
I am not saying that presidential republics are doomed to become tyrannical, but if you happen to find yourself choosing a new system of government for a country, I'd suggest a Parliament and Prime Minister, not a President and a Congress.