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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Matthew Yglesias Argues against Direct election of Presidents and for a Parliamentary system

The problem with a strong president, especially in a country that doesn’t have a stable tradition of political parties or peaceful transfers of power, is that there can only be one. The whole country is plunged into a winner-take-all political contest. If the winner turns out to be someone with a “one man, one vote, one time” concept of democracy, then that’s all she wrote.

I comment

I add the proviso that you want either some kind of proportional representation (with a cutoff at 5% or 10% not 20%) or, shudder, a senate.

The English are quite proud of the unwritten constitution (writing it down is sooooo nouveau riche). However, they admit that it pretty much amounts to an electoral dictatorship.

If you have a disciplined party with an absolute majority in the one real houes of Parliament, then you are most of the way there to a dictatorship.

I live in Italy. Silvio Berlusconi avoids conviction for his many crimes, because he can change the law so that his acts, which were crimes at the time, are no longer crimes. Makes me long for the filibuster. Well not really, but Italy doesn't effectively have the rule of law (it is really irritating when a lawyer makes an argument to a judge that the law should be interpreted one way, the judge says know then the lawyer puts on his other hat as chairman of the justice committee of the lower house and writes a law which says, in effect, the old law is to be interpreted the way I said and is not to be intrepreted the way the judge intepreted it -- I am describing actual events). This would not be possible in the USA.

In constrast if you have a unicameral congress with many parties, the President has to negotiate.

Looking at non dictatorships, Jamaica was in a bit of a spot both when the Jamaica Labour Party (obviously pro-market right) won all but seven seats in one election and then all of all of them the next because the PUP boycotted the election.

In contrast Lula da Silva has been in an Obamalike position of being no threat to anything (not that he would be anyway) because the Workers party has never had a working majority in parliament. So he has to deal. Which means deal with crooks. Which means pay bribes.

Egypt is not currently a failed Democracy. They never tried. It was a dictatorship with window dressing.

Interestingly Democratic forces in Brazil and S Korea insisted very hard for a Presidential system. A gradual transition from military rule makes it very easy for members of the show parliament who are friendly with the generals to win, because they have been bringing home the bacon.

Finally I might add that the terrible power of Dmitri Medvedev isn't the worst problem with Russian Democracy. That winner sure didn't take all. To me, Putin seems just as much a dictator as prime minister as he did as president.


Jonathan Hopkin said...

Dear Robert

I think your claim about Italy not having the rule of law is over-stated - it does have the rule of law, but Berlusconi is powerful enough to change the law when it suits him. But that's still the rule of law. If he was convicted and managed to avoid a sentence being imposed, that would be another matter. But in fact all he does is exhaust the appeals process, and if that fails, get the law changed.
Why couldn't this happen in the US? Between no one politician could ever get that degree of control, because American parties aren't parties in the European sense. It's not really the separation of powers that does the job (Italy has perfect bicameralism, which comes close) it's the fragmentation of the Congress because of the way people get elected, and raise their own money.

Great blog by the way.

Robert said...

Thanks for the comment. I will reply to points in reverse order.

Perfect bicameralism hasn't amounted to much so far. Almost always the same coalition controls both houses of parliament. The one exception is that the second Prodi government lost it's majority in the senate but not the camera. That was after an election they won by 0.07% of the vote. One can make a similar case that the US Supreme court chooses the President and that Italian perfect bicameralism makes a difference.

Yes the difference is party discipline, but it can't be a coincidence that all parliamentary democracies have discplined parties can it ? I think the source of party discipline is the threat to have early elections. Joe Lieberman sure wouldn't have uh Liebermanned Medicare buy in if Obama had declared it a vote of confidence.

Senators can be senatorial (which means irresponsible, because no one can force people to vote early, because of them. Notably, Prime ministers of the French IIIrd Republic (where parliament sat for a fixed term no matter what) were not over powerful (to put it very very mildly).

On the rule of law first I don't think a system of so called laws that one person can have changed at his will is a system of laws. But second it is simply not true that Berlusconi obeys the law until it he has it changed. He is not involved only in criminal cases. His company broadcasts on freequencies which belong to another firm. This is the verdict of the highest civil court (the consiglio di stato).

The highest court of appeal for civil cases decided this years and years ago. Nothing happened.

Always in Italy (except for criminal cases) *after* the courts decide some other organ has to do something as ordered by the courts. They don't if it inconveniences Berlusconi. So the laws and the courts are irrelevant (to anything involving broadcasting anyway).

Jonathan Hopkin said...

I think I'm with you on the rule of law in the substance, but if you're not Berlusconi the rule of law kind of works in Italy. They certainly fill the prisons up. There is huge inequality in how that applies, but there is in many countries, not least the US (although it's impressive they do in fact lock up the Madoffs and Eggers - in Italy that really doesn't happen - they get house arrest).
I don't think the threat of early elections is what's going on here. Italian PMs can't really use that - and in fact there is a long tradition of party-switching. Berlusconi gets more discipline than Prodi because he can buy it. Where parties don't have a grassroots to bind them, then where the money comes from starts to count a lot - best cite here is Thomas Ferguson 'The Golden Rule'.


Robert said...

The prisons are full. More than half of the prisoners are presumed to be innocent. Locking up people who are presumed to be innocent strikes me rather as evidence that the law does not rule.

The key determinate of whether one is in prison or not is not at all whether one has been convincted (you will note Berlusconi has been convicted in primo grado many times). It is a decision made about whether one should be locked up while awaiting a final verdict. Differently from in the USA, the accused is presumed innocent until all appeals have been exausted. This takes years. Therefore the only way to protect the public is to lock up people who are presumed innocent.

This is done in the USA too (held without bail). In fact, I'm sure a larger fraction of the US population is both presumed innocent and locked up (the full prisons in Italy have miniscule capacity compared to the US prison system).

Still if more presumed innocent people are locked up than are convicts serving sentences, then the so called Costituzione della Repubblica Italiana is a joke.

Which it certainly is and don't get me started on that.

The law is not just the criminal law "codice penale" but also civil law "condice civile." The second is largely irrelevant in Italy.

Consider a case in which people spoke of the rule of law in the USA. It was hotly debated if the rule of law required that Paula Jones obtain times relief for an alleged tort or whether it was acceptable to make her wait until Clinton was no longer President (in no more than 6 years). This debate would be absurd in Italy as plaintiffs normally wait about 10 years. The phrase "Justice delayed is justice denied" is not an exaggeration.

This is also true when the State is the plaintiff. There are theoretically restrictions on construction (zoning and all that). They aren't enforced.