The Regime Change We Need
By PARAG KHANNA & LAWRENCE GROO
It may be lonely at the top, but many presidents around the world wouldn’t have it any other way. Western observers are accustomed to the autocratic tendencies of Arab strongmen and African dictators, but elsewhere a new breed of executive is emerging, sometimes combining bravado with popularity, in other cases professing democracy while seeking exemptions from it, and even pioneering a model of governance which defies Western hopes of smooth democratic transitions.
Over the last several years, the United States has increasingly focused on promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and elsewhere, helping to sponsor “revolutions” in Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan while pressuring Arab regimes across the board to conduct free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, and to accept the results. Yet the reality is that in many cases where peaceful regime change has been achieved — such as in several Eastern European countries — one set of self-serving leaders has been replaced with another. And where long-time incumbent executives have pledged to reform or stand aside, such as in various Middle Eastern countries, many have reversed course or further entrenched themselves in the trappings of power.
In Eastern Europe, Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko’s reneging on his promise to transition the country toward a parliamentary, rather than presidential, system, and his maintenance of a powerful shadow cabinet, convinced many voters that the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 was more a staged handover than a resolute demonstration of people power. Furthermore, he failed to convince many mainstream citizens, particularly in the country’s east, to support a permanent tilt towards Western institutions such as NATO. Not surprisingly, his party fared poorly in the March 2006 elections and was replaced by the Russian-backed party of Viktor Yanukovich. The lesson is that Western powers must be careful whom they back in so-called revolutions, for they risk giving a carte blanche to self-serving executives who are far from champions of democracy.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Georgia, site of another Western-endorsed regime change that took the form of the 2003 “Rose Revolution.” Riding a wave of popularity after the ouster of Eduard Shevardnadze, young and Western-educated Mikhail Saakashvili has taken every opportunity to profess democracy in theory while often ignoring it in practice. Opposition newspapers, TV stations and NGOs have been intimidated and shut down, while, ironically, Western funding for such groups has dried up due to the presumed success of the Rose Revolution.
Under the pretext of Russian meddling in the disputed province of South Ossetia, as well as Moscow’s cut-off of gas supplies, Saakashvili maintains a powerful secret police, used more for shaking down his opponents than for internal security. While Saakashvili’s administration has achieved some success in reforming antiquated business regulations, his appointment of loyal judges has undermined the judicial system’s independence, and the constant musical chairs in the cabinet has made it difficult to know who is leading on important policy reform efforts at any given time.
Other transitioning countries in the region have also been bedeviled by lackluster or inconsistent democratic leadership, including Poland (the ruling Kaczynski brothers have not won many friends or admirers since assuming power), Slovakia (the current coalition government is comprised of authoritarian and racist political parties) and the Czech Republic (which hasn’t even had a government since the June elections because of political squabbling). Only Romania (and Bulgaria on better days) appears to have a government that is both credible and steadfast in its commitment to push important reforms.
Whether in Ukraine, Georgia or elsewhere, heavy-handed or poorly managed executive governance inevitably means “democracy fatigue” sets in as a beleaguered population sees little improvement in its material welfare and political freedom. In this political environment it is not surprising that a growing number of executive leaders play nationalist, populist or anti-capitalist trump cards and simply sidestep the democratic path to establishing or legitimizing their rule. Indeed, a number of liberal non-democracies are becoming role models for leaders in transition states, creating something of an alternative option to unpredictable democratic futures.
While Southeast Asia’s democracies — Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand — all suffer from significant political instability, weak economic growth and separatist movements, the region’s best performers are soft authoritarian states such as Singapore and Malaysia. Indeed, Central Asian leaders, such as Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, increasingly measure themselves not against Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but rather Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed. Both men stepped aside gracefully after leading their countries upward — in the case of Singapore straight to the pinnacle of the first world. Nazarbayev is aiming at a similar form of selected succession, ensuring his strong legacy while protecting his interests. Though Lee remains Singapore’s “Minister Mentor”, and Mahathir is safely ensconced on a high perch as chairman of the Petronas oil company, both men have demonstrated a humility sorely lacking in nominally more democratic states — Ukraine and Georgia.
From Venezuela to Egypt to Uzbekistan, executive leaders have become more entrenched while sapping the strength of reform movements in the legislative and judicial branches. In explaining this trend, it helps to examine the fundamental calculations underlying the actions of any executive: how to accrue maximum influence in governance, how to sustain one’s governing mandate the longest and which vision or doctrine to follow in pursuit of a great legacy. The combination of these three imperatives decisively shapes how any executive manages efforts for government reform. Russia’s President Putin, for example, was trained as a KGB shadow warrior and views unfettered democracy as a threat to Russia’s imperial greatness. Not surprisingly, he has imprisoned opposition figures, reined in regional governors and sought to control the nation’s vast energy assets through the state oil behemoth Gazprom.
In many developing countries the executive enjoys a disproportionate amount of de facto power, whether in specific constitutional terms (i.e. direct authority over the security forces or ability to issue directives without legislative consent) or through informal means (i.e. using the executive’s profile as a “bully pulpit”). This broader mandate can sometimes translate into a high success rate for executive-initiated legislation. In Mexico, for example, despite a strong opposition during the 58th Legislature (2000-2003), President Vicente Fox maintained a success rate above 80 percent on legislation initiated by his office — effectively dominating domestic policy development despite being termed a weak executive. His legislative successes included the 2002 passage of a freedom of information act that opened up the files of Mexico’s government to the public for the first time in history.
This example of executive dominance over the legislature is hardly unique. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has only tolerated parliamentary shifts up to the point where the Muslim Brotherhood became too popular for its own good — further local elections have been put on hold for fear of the Islamists’ surge. And yet, it has been observed that Egypt’s parliament has become far more serious with the infusion of the Brotherhood’s culture of efficiency and delivery — making Mubarak, and by extension his supporters in the U.S. government, look hypocritical. These points strongly suggest that governance reform almost always begins, and very often ends, with the specific character of a country’s executive leadership.
Even when legislative, judicial and other administrative organs appear on paper to resemble modern bureaucracies, the hidden levers of power may still be controlled by one person. Across the Middle East, the sons of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Lebanon’s Rafik Hariri already occupy positions of significant authority. Syria’s Bashir al-Asad and Jordan’s King Abdullah have directly inherited their fathers’ leadership. In the region with the world’s greatest mismatch of high power centralization and low democratic governance, parliamentary reform and other measures appear — for the most part — like mere tinkering if governance programs do not seek to directly address the accountability of the executive itself. Similarly, in Latin America, the recent resurgence of populist executive leadership in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia has reinforced the need to more clearly address the institutional organization of the executive.
Despite its central role in the governance of the state as the nerve center of executive power, the structure of the executive office of most countries is almost entirely invisible to the public.1 In fledgling democracies, the rush to assume power and implement governance reforms frequently causes newly elected leaders to either overlook the need to structure their internal offices efficiently and transparently, or to simply grow the office, duplicating administrative processes in other cabinet departments or agencies. This is particularly a risk in fragile democracies such as Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia and Colombia, whose governments must adopt and implement a large number of reforms in a short period. The irony is that countries with the greatest need for governance reform often suffer from disorganized or poorly structured executive offices that fundamentally hinder the implementation of critical reform initiatives.
Executive power is exercised from centralized offices that can range in size from 50 to 3,000 employees. Where executive office structure and size remain opaque, leaders often avail themselves of the privilege of toying with the national cabinet. Today, most leaders have cabinets that range from 15 to 20 members. But to centralize executive power and oversight, the presidents in Colombia and Russia, for example, have in the last several years taken steps to limit or even decrease the size of the cabinet. At the same time, the need to distribute political patronage in weak coalition governments has led Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo to govern with a large and unwieldy cabinet, a move which effectively amounts to a divide-and-rule strategy.
Overturning constitutional term limits on the executive is one of the most common signals of the growing influence of an executive bent on consolidating governing power. President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, arguably Latin America’s most popular executive, recently received the approval from the Constitutional Court to sit for a second term, which he won decisively in May. That his doing so contradicted earlier pledges to leave office after one term did not dissuade a majority of the Congress from supporting him given the fragility of the country’s peace process with the FARC rebels. President Uribe’s expanded tenure is, by the standards of various North African and Middle Eastern countries, relatively fleeting.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced in June that he would stand for another term despite publicly encouraging democratic reform in the Middle East and his own previous pledges to step down this year at the end of his current term. He is almost certain to win re-election, extending his rule from 1978-2013. And Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, recently shuffled his cabinet in a move that likely presages his intent to amend the constitution — allowing him to run for a third five-year term. In other “reform-oriented” Middle Eastern countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, there is hardly a whisper of any real executive-focused reforms.
An executive who simultaneously enjoys a dominant majority in parliament similarly exploits the presence of checks and balances which exist more on paper than in reality. For example, two scholars researching Latin American governments have argued that historically the region’s states favor presidential systems, but that these governments are only effective when the president also controls parliament. In other words, successful presidentialism in Latin America depends on the absence of any “veto party.”2 Venezuela is a good example of this phenomenon. Prior to Hugo Chavez’s recent electoral “landslide” (in which at most 15 percent of the population voted), the opposition had already collapsed, leaving the new parliament with little ability to resist Chavez’s plans to extend his presidency and expand his powers. In Nigeria, by contrast, Obasanjo’s recent move to amend the 1999 constitution to allow him — as well as state governors — to sit for a third consecutive term was flatly opposed by a majority of the Nigerian Senate, which was clearly uncomfortable with the further consolidation of power within the executive branch.
While it is easier, in the short run, for the United States and EU powers to conduct relations with a strong executive counterpart (there is little glory to be earned in negotiating bilateral treaties or trade deals with unwieldy legislatures or impersonal bureaucracies), there is also a risk. Encouraging the consolidation of executive power in countries with weak democratic institutions is a slippery slope. The temptation to muddle through in doing business with reform-deviant super-executives has always been strong for the United States, itself governed by a presidential system. The man or woman across the table is clearly in charge, and personal rapport can be built. In the case of Russia, the Clinton Administration became more than comfortable with Boris Yeltsin, and President Bush subsequently forged an early rapport with Yeltsin’s chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. But this early coddling has proved an embarrassment of sorts; Putin has carried Russia ever further from democracy, and U.S.-Russian relations are more acrimonious following Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent public criticism of Putin’s anti-democratic behavior.
Whether the rise of these strong executives constitutes a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of the next phase of democratic backsliding, Western efforts to promote governance reform are in question. Indeed, each year, the U.S. government and development institutions like the World Bank commit billions of dollars to further governance reform in dozens of different countries. The failure of these Western aid and reform programs to address the fundamental and central character of executive power is one critical explanation for their very mixed record in the post-Cold War era.3 Though promoting effective democratic governance in developing and transitional countries is now a central goal of U.S. national security policy, very few mechanisms have actually been developed to effectively contain, decentralize or counter-balance executive power. In explaining the underlying factors for these equivocal results, the General Accounting Office (GAO) as well as several analyses frequently note a lack of domestic “political will” for the concerned reforms. In fact, governance reform is often necessary precisely because of the lack of political will, which is the measure of the extent to which a country’s political leadership is willing or able to endorse and achieve a particular reform or set of reforms. And in most democratic governments, the political leadership of the country is synonymous with the executive, whether in parliamentary or presidential systems.
One emerging lesson from the rise of executive power in fragile democracies is the realization that in targeting government reform, no outside donor or agency can be neutral with respect to the executive. The reform measures they support either buttress or undermine the executive’s interests, and the leader in turn endorses, ignores or blocks potential structural and policy changes. Rather than digging a moat around the executive and hoping for the best, the World Bank and other donors should recognize the power of the executive in shaping governance and make executive reform a central plank of their assistance programs. Indeed, there is little point in initiating or supporting ambitious governance reform programs when the executive itself lacks the means to systematically implement and sustain those reforms.
In most cases where the West seeks decentralization of executive power, parliamentary systems are a better fit and more desirable than presidential ones. In this respect, Europe may possess superior expertise to the United States, with more experience based not only on its own parliamentary systems but also on the past decade of integrating new members into the European Union, rewriting constitutions and laws in the process. In Ukraine, for example, the EU was more attentive than the United States to Yuschenko’s reluctant backsliding on decentralizing power, while devoting greater efforts to reforming Ukraine’s parliamentary system.
For its part, the United States can be more proactive in presidential systems such as Serbia, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Peru. In these cases, executive leaders and their top advisors should embrace outside assistance to ensure their capacity to institutionalize reform programs — or risk losing that assistance altogether. There will always be cases, such as Uzbekistan, where the executive becomes paranoid and rejects international assistance out of fear and suspicion of their orchestrating a choose-your-color revolution. But even here there is a range of options to nudge the regime back on track, such as barring officials from travel (as the EU has done in Uzbekistan and Belarus) or pressuring to legalize certain opposition parties (as the United States and EU have done in Zimbabwe).
Because a non-democratic executive is the archetype of a leader who responds to incentives, the international community can and should develop better instruments to address and change those incentives when necessary. Pressure to increase the transparency of the executive office and the policy-making process it supports is one place to start, and certain forms of aid provided by the U.S. government and other donors can be made conditional upon this. Such interventions also provide parliament, reform-minded civil servants and opposition party members with greater confidence that the executive is being managed in a way that institutionalizes democratic reforms, rather than an individual’s power base.
1 Only half of the 25 member countries of the European Union (EU) publish information on the staff of the executive office on official government websites, and only eight countries detail the specific structure and composition of the executive office. Most developing countries fail to disclose even basic information on the president’s executive office, although there are a few notable exceptions — South Africa’s government provides cell phone numbers of top advisors to President Thabo Mbeki.
2 Josep M. Colomer and Gabriel L. Negretto, “Can Presidentialism Work Like Parliamentarism?” Government and Opposition (2005), pp. 60-89.
3 Over the last 15 years, a series of largely overlooked U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reports has found that U.S. assistance programs have had limited and inconsistent impact. In 1993 the GAO noted that judicial reform assistance programs in Latin America had “experienced serious problems, resulting in a portfolio of marginally successful projects.” Another GAO report eight years later documented how former Soviet-bloc countries receiving U.S. assistance had “not clearly adopted on a wide scale the new concepts and practices … [i]n fact, the rule of law appears to have actually deteriorated in recent years in several of these countries.”