Presidential Power and Democratic Stability under the Russian Constitution: A Comparative Analysis.


For social scientists, one of the consequences of the so-called third wave of democratization(1) that has taken place over the past two decades or so has been the revitalization of structural or neoinstitutional approaches to politics.(2) With a great number of states during this period experiencing transitions away from various types of authoritarian rule and toward more explicitly democratic systems of governance, students of these transitions to democracy have focused increasing attention on the consequences of institutional choices, constitution building, electoral sequencing, and other structural factors with a view to determine the impact of specific institutional arrangements on the long-term prospects for the consolidation of these "uncertain democracies." Given the temporal development of this third wave of democratization, the bulk of the original research on transitions was dominated by students of Latin America and, to a lesser extent, southern Europe. As a result, those interested in the political processes of "late" third-wave democratizers (e.g., Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states) have looked to the tentative conclusions of those familiar with such processes in "early" third-wave transitions.

This article falls squarely into these two traditions. First, it examines aspects of the transition from communist authoritarianism in Russia from a decidedly institutional perspective. Specifically, it joins the extant debate among students of transitions from authoritarianism on the relative desirability of presidentialism and parliamentarianism as the defining structural arrangement for uncertain democracies. This debate is an ongoing one in part because, as Shugart and Carey explain, while the bulk of the scholarly literature on transitions has come down on the side of parliamentarianism as the preferred democratic institutional arrangement for transition states, "nearly all the new democracies in the 1970s and 1980s ... have had elected presidents with varying degrees of political authority."(3) This trend has continued as the late third-wave new democracies emerging in East and Central Europe and the former USSR have also tended to create systems that, while perhaps not purely presidential in structure, do entail significant presidential power. In the Russia case, this proclivity toward strong executive power is perhaps most pronounced. Indeed, one student of the December 1993 Russian constitution has described the system it defines as "superpresidential."(4) As such, Russia is arguably a critical case for shedding additional light on the current executive-legislative powers debate.

Second, this article attempts to be explicitly comparative in focus, drawing as it does on the democratic transition literature, in general, and on a particular framework for the evaluation of presidential authority in uncertain democracies, more specifically. In each instance, then, the analysis of the Russian case that follows borrows heavily from the scholarly literature that was developed as a response to democratic transitions outside the communist world. While such a stance vis-a-vis the postcommunist transitions is no longer overly controversial and is based on the notion that transitions from authoritarianism in Latin American and southern Europe may at some level be instructive to students interested in a similar process in postcommunist transitions.(5) an additional aim of this exercise is to suggest appropriate modifications of the theoretical literature.

Presidents and Parliaments in Uncertain Democracies

Most students of postauthoritarian transitions have concluded that uncertain democracies are best served by the adoption of parliamentary forms of government. This argument has rested on two pillars--one positive and one negative. First, proponents of parliamentarianism have argued that the system is inherently more democratic in that the representative function of the government is maximized, as compared to the greater degree of separation between the electorate and a powerful president. Many scholars have been attracted to the parliamentary system's characteristic single agent of government whereby in the pure Westminster tradition, the legislative and executive aspects of the regime are fused, thereby permitting the rather spontaneous translation of the will of the electorate (or at least a sizable plurality of it) into legislation. Without fixed terms of office, politicians in such systems must constantly heed the maintenance of parliamentary majorities and, by extension, popular approbation. These structural components of a Westminster system, some theorists argue, make it a preferable system per se.

This generic claim--and the argument it joins--is, of course, an old one and is not of primary concern here. It is worth noting, however, that a variation of this argument has been put forward to apply to regimes in transition to democracy.(6) This variation argues essentially that in postauthoritarian transitional environments, the prospects of democratic consolidation are best served by such a system inasmuch as it is more likely to facilitate several important desiderata of consolidation: the development of viable party systems, the transfer of power away from fixed-term political executives, the corresponding enhancement of legislatures that are usually emasculated during periods Of authoritarianism, and the avoidance of the stalemate or gridlock often seen in two-agent systems of divided legislative-executive power. In addition, the postauthoritarian political environment is often perceived as hostile to strong executive power, especially one that can act in ways reminiscent of the authoritarian leadership that only recently had been defeated. For all of these reasons, then, the construction of postauthoritarian political systems that favor a parliamentary base of authority has been considered apposite.

The second pillar of the stance favoring the adoption of parliamentary systems of government over presidential schemes rests on a negative argument about the relatively undemocratic nature of sitting presidents. This argument at times assumes the tenor of advocating parliamentarianism by default, given the patent unacceptability for democracies of presidentialism. Specifically, scholars such as Linz, Lijphart, Mainwaring, and others point to what they consider the major deficiencies of presidentialism. First, unlike prime minsters who must maintain parliamentary confidence, elected presidents are afforded fixed terms of office that shield them from the responsibility to be constantly sensitive to popular and parliamentary will. While such a provision lends stability to politics, it does carry with it the penalty of at least short-term presidential immunity from the vagaries of politics. Fixed-term presidents are, in a sense, free to ignore the political will of the population, especially at the early stages of the term and in lame-duck situations. Second, and related to the negative aspects of a luted-term president, presidential systems usually carry with them some ultimate limitation on the length of time that office may be held by an individual. In an ironic twist, presidential systems are thus criticized both for not allowing the removal of an inferior president until his or her term is over and for not permitting the continued reelection of an individual who seems most appropriate for the job.(7) Both types of criticism point to the temporal rigidity of executive leadership in presidential systems.

A third criticism of presidentialism revolves around the fact that such systems are less representative than parliamentary regimes. In almost all cases, whether through direct popular election or through some sort of electoral college, the very process of selecting one individual to fill a single national office exaggerates terribly the nature of the electoral mandate. Thus, the election of presidents (qua the single agent of government) often entails a severe distortion of the electorate's will, even in cases where the elected president wins in a landslide. A president who wins 55 percent of the vote receives 100 percent of the presidency. Forty-five percent of the voting electorate goes, in a sense, unrepresented. Of course, in instances with more than two presidential candidates in general elections, the result is often skewed even further. Such a process, critics argue, can lead to extremism.

A final general criticism of presidential regimes revolves around the degree of separation between elected presidents and elected assemblies. As students of the American presidential and the French hybrid systems know full well, the electorate even in advanced stable democracies is quite capable of providing mixed "mandates" by supporting one party's presidential candidate while returning the opposing party to a majority role in the assembly. In pure presidential systems, neither the president nor the assembly relies on the other for their continued existence, thus encouraging gridlock in instances of conflicting institutional mandates. As Shugart and Carey put it, in such situations of dual democratic legitimacy "for representatives of parties other than the president's the logic of opposition is clear.... There is nothing to gain from cooperation with the executive."(8) From this perspective, then, critics of presidentialism are focusing their attention on the negative aspects of the separation of powers, usually a relatively good check on creeping presidential authoritarianism.

As with the first set of pro-parliamentary sentiment, the antipresidential sentiment has its own particular variations when confronting the issue of postauthoritarian transitions. The risk of presidentialism is based, of course, on the assumption that strong presidencies in such settings have an affinity with renewed authoritarianism.(9) Of the generic criticisms of presidentialism cited above...

To continue reading