Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Guillermo O’Donnell. 1996. Illusions about Consolidation

Guillermo O’Donnell. “Illusions about Consolidation.” Journal of Democracy 7 (April 1996), 34-51.

The purpose of this paper is to furnish some elements of needed revision in the conceptual and comparative agenda for the study of all existing polyarchies, especially those that are informally institutionalized.

The main argument is that the problem with many new polyarchies is not that they lack institutionalization. Rather, the way in which political scientists usually conceptualize some institutions prevents us from recognizing that these polyarchies actually have two extremely important institutions:
1)     Elections - highly formalized, but intermittent
2)     Particularism (or Clientelism, broadly defined) - informal, permanent, and pervasive; they refer broadly to various sorts of nonuniversalistic relationships, ranging from hierarchical particularistic exchanges, patronage, nepotism, and favors to actions that, under the formal rules of institutional polyarchy, would be considered corrupt.

Attributes that need to be added to Dahl's characterization of a polyarchy:
1)     Elected (and some appointed) officials should not be arbitrarily terminated before the end of their constitutionally mandated terms.
2)     Elected authorities should not be subject to severe constraints, vetoes, or exclusion from certain policy domains by other, nonelected actors, especially in the armed forces.
3)     There should be an uncontested national territory that clearly defines the voting population.
4)     The generalized expectation that a fair electoral process and its surrounding freedoms will continue into an indefinite future.

In many new polyarchies, the formal rules about how political institutions are supposed to work are often poor guides ot what actually happens. Fixating on highly formalized and complex organizations prevents us from seeing the extremely influential, informal, and (sometimes) concealed institution of clientelism and particularism. Informal rules that are widely shared, rooted, and complied with can be highly institutionalized and might cause a observational disconnect between the formal rules and the way political institutions actually work.

Polyarchies that are informally institutionalized can hinder "horizontal" accountability—accountability between state agencies that control and redress trespasses of legally established authoritative boundaries by any official or agency.

The combination of particularism as a dominant political institution, institutionalized elections, and gaps between informal and formal rules of operation can lead to an affinity for delegative notions of authority, where a caesaristic, plebiscitarian executive sees itself as empowered to govern as it deems fit and other formal political institutions (congress, the judiciary, various state agencies) as hindrances in the way of the proper discharge of tasks the voters have delegated to the executive. And the particularism, delegative rule, and weak horizontal accountability can enable old authoritarian practices and make policy implementation biased in favor of highly organized and economically powerful interests.

Such informal institutionalizations can hinder the development of democracies into what we typically associate with the democracies of the Northern Europe.

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