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The Presidency in Latin American Politics  

Valeria Palanza

Presidents derive support from electoral endorsement at the polls, but once in office, how they exercise power is also determined by the checks other actors impose on the presidency. By design, the presidential system was intended to function within a carefully conceived structure of checks and balances. As the executive branch in a system of separation of powers, the presidency was granted veto power over the lawmaking process. Congress and the judiciary were in turn granted prerogatives to check the executive in its own realm of action. Latin American presidential systems, however, have equipped presidents with extraordinary capacities, setting incentives in a different direction, where presidents often take the place of the most determinative decision maker within the political system. Juan Linz came to believe that presidentialism was not conducive to stable democracy (Linz, 1990), and his influential work spearheaded an era of studies that ultimately contradicted his arguments and led research in a new direction, while the third wave of democracy brought about stable yet unbalanced presidential systems. In order to understand the incentives that underlie this newfound stability, a deeper understanding of the institutional arrangements that govern it is necessary, and key among these, those structured around the legislative process. The institutions that make up the Latin American presidency as it stands in the early 21st century define incentives that lay out its unique character and distinct form of concentration of power. These can be organized into three sets: (a) elections, (b) lawmaking, and (c) cabinet management. Considering the institutions, and practices, that govern these three areas and how they vary across countries provides the building blocks to understanding the complexity of the presidency in Latin America. Whether presidents are elected indirectly via an electoral college or through direct votes by citizens, the specification of the type of majority required to win the presidency, the length of terms, and whether re-election is allowed are details that, when combined in diverse ways, present politicians and citizens with different sets of incentives to govern their behavior. These arrangements underwent different reforms over the turn of the 21st century. The institutions surrounding the lawmaking process are chief in lending the Latin American presidency its reputation of centralizing power, as constitutions are packed with arrangements that blur the separation of powers. Presidential legislative proposal power, presidential control of the legislative agenda through constitutional urgency authority (fast-track), variations in the veto prerogative, variations in override requirements, the delimitation of areas to exclusive presidential proposal rights, restrictions on congress to increase spending, and constitutional decree authority; all of these work to extend the legislative capacities of presidents, enabling them to counter the will of congress in ways unthinkable to the Founding Fathers when they first created this system. Latin American presidents also face challenges in managing cabinets, which in some cases are a fundamental component to articulate coalitions in the legislature—much like in parliamentary systems. Partisan dynamics come to life in the cabinet, and cabinets may work as important tools to manage otherwise fragmented party systems. Finally, understanding the influence of gender on presidential systems presents a promising avenue of research.