Argentina and Brazil are governed by presidents with extensive authority. But who influences their political agenda? Magna Inácio and Mariana Llanos look at the players in the background.
© Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino
Presidents are undoubtedly the most powerful political actors in Latin American democracies. They enjoy significant policy‐making powers in multiple policy realms as means to influence the legislative agenda, to control the allocation of resources, to appoint and dismiss thousands of different government officials, and to directly respond to the demands of their electorate. But even the most influential presidents need the political support and technical assistance of trusted advisors, technical staff, and government agencies.
Students of the United States’ presidency have shown that presidents have incentives for creating and strengthening technical, administrative, and advisory presidential support bodies both to confront critical junctures – the modern US presidency emerged in the wake of the Great Depression – and to help face the challenges that are posed in a system characterized by "separated institutions sharing powers."
At the same time, scholars have also documented the increasing centralization of authority around the person of the chief executive and the steady movement toward the institutional reinforcement of the political core executive as developments taking place in most advanced industrial countries in the last forty to fifty years.
In Latin America the distinction between the executive leadership and the institutional nature of the modern presidency has not been addressed yet, despite there having been a significant expansion of studies on presidentialism.
In this paper we begin to shed light on this underresearched topic by focusing on the presidencies of Argentina and Brazil since their redemocratization in the 1980s. Our study of the presidency concentrates on the cluster of agencies that directly support the chief of the executive, which in the presidential studies literature is called the "core executive" or the "institutional presidency".
These offices are part of the bureaucracy of the executive branch, but they are not located within the executive cabinet; their defining characteristic is that they operate under the direct authority of the president and are in charge of supporting the presidential leadership.
Following the specialized literature, we argue that the growth of the institutional presidency is connected to developments occurring in the larger political system – that is, to the governmental and political challenges that presidents face. Presidents adjust the format and mandate of the different agencies under their authority so as to better manage their relations with the wider political environment.
We observe reverse developments having taken place after the democratic transitions both in Argentina and Brazil, where the institutional presidency has at times been expanded and at other times reduced – and we thus inquire into the causes of such evolutions.
These movements have not only affected the size of the institutional presidency but also the types of agency that form it. Regarding size, we borrow from Terry Moe, and call "centralization" any increase in the number of presidential agencies. For Moe, a centralizing movement indicates a shifting of the functions of the wider executive branch to the core executive instead, while, conversely, presidents "decentralize" when they take agencies away from their direct authority and place them under the authority of a cabinet minister instead.
Regarding the type of agencies, making changes to those under the presidential umbrella can affect their substantive tasks in terms of the provision of core administrative, policy, or advisory support.
In the following pages we analyze the creation, transfer, and/or dissolution of presidential agencies, we compare how the blueprint of the institutional presidency looks in Argentina and Brazil over time, and we search for what the causes are of the differences found between the two cases.
We argue that the type of government – a factor that until now has not played a significant role in presidential studies, which are mostly based on the US case – poses various challenges to presidents and, thus, impacts differently on the structure of the presidency. Our empirical references, the presidencies of Brazil and Argentina, and typical cases of coalitional as well as single‐party presidentialism respectively all allow us to test the impact of the aforementioned factor.
In effect, we expect to find greater centralization under coalition presidentialism because presidents must share cabinet positions, negotiate, and manage relations with coalition partners. In single‐party governments, meanwhile, presidents can more freely assert themselves over the whole executive structure, in other words centralization should be less necessary.
Similarly, we expect the type of government to affect the types of agency that form the institutional presidency, with coalition presidents building a more complex and varied presidential institution.
The literature on presidentialism, and particularly those works focusing on coalition experiences in Latin America, sheds light on the “executive toolbox” that is available to the different heads of state for building legislative majorities.
Our analysis highlights a specific tool herein that previous studies on this region have not yet explored: the strategic redesign undertaken by the president of the bureaucratic structures of the presidential office. It suggests that presidents can use the making of structural changes in their office as a tool with which to manage their relations with the wider political environment in general, and with the cabinet in particular.
These changes are resources that the presidential leadership can use to complement or substitute other tools, such as agendasetting power or pork and ministerial nominations – which are those aspects usually highlighted by the aforementioned literature.
The paper is organized as follows: The next section presents the theoretical background to our study of the institutional presidency, with emphasis on the existing theories about the growth of the US presidency and with references made to the main features of the Argentine and Brazilian political systems. Following on, Section 3 deals with the research question, data, methodology, and the results obtained from our empirical study. Section 4 then concludes by outlining our pending tasks as researchers, and by suggesting what the implications of our work are for the agenda of presidential studies on Latin America henceforth. [...]
Read on: Magna Inácio and Mariana Llanos, The Institutional Presidency from a Comparative Perspective: Argentina and Brazil since the 1980s, GIGA Working Paper, No. 259, October 2014
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