The logic of presidentialism
bolivia | by Miguel Centellas | 12 Mar, 2004 at 12:39 PM | comments (3) | trackback (0)

The Achilles' heel of presidentialism is the system of checks of balances. Why? Because in presidential democracies, political parties (especially the opposition) have invested interest in sabotaging the executive's agenda. They can cast blame on the executive (and/or his party), winning electoral support for themselves. Prior to October, Bolivia's political system was more parliamentary than presidential — or a system of "parliamentarized presidentialism" (to use a buzzword).

Now, Mesa's facing an increasingly hostile legislature as his honeymoon period ends and (more importantly) municipal elections draw near. There's growing resistance to his "double tax" proposal — as the idea of adding a tax on those w/ $50,000 along w/ a 0.3% tax on bank transactions is dubbed. The opposition's cutting across party lines — even the MNR (the last "loyal opposition" party Mesa has left) shows signs of moving away.

A MIR senator freely admitted that the resistance was due to upcoming municipal elections. No party wants to help pass a significant tax law right now. And though municipal elections might seem unimportant, they're extremely important in the Bolivian context.

First, because these are the only other elections in the country (there's no election for provincial or departmental authorities). This makes them a watermark test of political muscle in the post-October realignment. Especially since the parties aren't interested in deciding how to convene the Constituent Assembly until they know their new relative strength. Politics isn't a Rawlsian utopia; actors tend to write rules in their favor.

Second, because municipal elections include four major prizes: the cities of La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and El Alto. The parties (and mayors) that win in those cities will be prime candidates to the presidency in 2007. And holding those municipalities will give them extensive resources to campaign.

There've been tense meetings between Mesa's representatives & municipal authorities. It's already been said that the municipal governments won't collect the taxes, if the law passes. They'll let the government collect the taxes — next July.

Political parties want to increase taxes on the oil & gas transnationals instead. This, of course, wins votes because it's popular (and transnationals don't vote). Increasing taxes isn't a vote winner — in any democracy. The problem w/ this strategy, of course, is that increasing taxes on already existing contracts might be illegal (the transnationals are already preparing lawsuits against the government) — it might scare away much-needed foreign investment.

Yesterday, Mesa's government met a brick wall in parliament. A joint executive-legislative commission worked to reach a compromise — and failed. Now Mesa announces he'll step down if the political parties don't rally to his support. This bit of brinksmanship didn't do much to endear him to the major parties, who've said they won't respond to threats.

Most likely, the parties'll eventually rally & approve Mesa's tax proposals. After the December elections. Giving them plenty of time before the 2007 general elections. But. Will it be in time to close the deficit gap & save the Bolivian state from a financial disaster?

" comments

I still believe that the political parties need to support Mesa to gain any ounce of credibility that they have remaining. After all, they were all part of the coalition. I think as each day goes by, I start to respect and admire Carlos Mesa even more. Who really knows what took place behind the scenes during the days leading up to Goni's resignation? Was Mesa an opportunist? What would have been the alternative? At this point, it really does not matter. Mesa is showing, by working as an independent, that he truly is a public servant. He does not need to satisfy party loyalists, those dependent on access to the nation's monetary resources, etc. I think this lack of support is really showing who has what's best for the country as their number one priority.

If Mesa steps down, what then?

Posted by eduardo | March 12, 2004 08:35 PM

I understand your point, and I, too, am more impressed by Mesa than I was days after he took office. But.

The problem of the "logic of presidentialism" isn't that it shows who cares about a country more. It's that presidential politics sets up a pattern of conflicting politics based on a variety of factors. Even in the US we see bitter partisan rivalries. Why? Because if the GOP has the presidency, then the Dems have to do everything they can to put wrenches in the govt. machinery to then blame problems on the president & his party. And vice versa.

Also, remember that the parties in Bolivia's parliament DO represent certain regional, ideological, etc. interests. Mesa has popular support in El Alto & parts of La Paz. But he has no party. The politicians voted in do, and that means something. They have constituents. They can point to a table and say "that's how many votes I got" — Mesa can't do that.

Mesa has to learn to play w/ the parties. He has to learn that he can't just dictate terms to them; they want to be part of the solution, not just a rubber stamp. And that makes Mesa's job complicated. The position he took the other day of saying he'd step down if parliament didn't do what he wants is like a spoiled kid threatening to take his ball home if he can't make up the rules of the game. A bad move.

Around the world, party politics have been given a bad wrap by idealists. But pragmatic politics requires that we see political parties for all the good they also accomplish (e.g. aggregating & articulating group interests). If you can, look for an article by S. M. Lipset in Journal of Democracy that was called (I think) "The Indispensibilty of Political Parties."

Posted by miguel | March 13, 2004 12:48 PM

I agree. Mesa needs the parties more than the parties need Mesa. My comment was simply a best-case scenario and something that I wish would happen, but one that little chance of becoming reality.

Posted by eduardo | March 14, 2004 01:52 PM

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