Some democracies are built to resist populism
Recent and upcoming political upheavals in a number of countries provide some evidence that the institutional design of democracies can be critically important. A clear advantage is emerging for countries that don’t directly elect a president: They are more likely to resist the wave of populism sweeping the West.
Where there are no direct presidential elections, populists must win many individual elections over many cycles in order to rise to a nation’s chief executive; Donald Trump seized the White House in his first run for public office. It took less than 17 months.
In the Netherlands, where a populist threat fizzled in this month’s legislative election, the perennial need for parties to form coalitions made it unlikely that Geert Wilders would have governed, even had he achieved a plurality of votes. He formed his Party for Freedom 11 years ago.
There was also no populist revolution in Spain during last year’s elections, and none seems likely in Germany—both countries without a directly elected chief executive. Even in the UK, the Brexit surprise wouldn’t have been possible had David Cameron refused to support the referendum: The 2015 election, which Cameron won, brought a pro-European majority to parliament. The basic UK system, also without a single directly elected leader, is inherently as stable and reliable as the other parliamentary democracies.
France’s presidential election in April and May gives nationalist populist Marine Le Pen far more visibility, and a clearer path to power, than legislative elections provide for her party, the National Front. Despite being at a disadvantage in the polls, she can still win under certain turnout-related scenarios. In that case, her potential for disruption will be much greater than if her party won the same proportion of votes as she’s going to get in the first round of voting. Though, contrary to the widespread perception of the strength of the French presidency, Le Pen would have plenty of opportunity for mischief. The president can, for example, call a referendum—something Le Pen might well do on Euro Zone and European Union membership.
When a country’s constitution provides for the direct election of a president, even with largely ceremonial powers, a strong leader with a lot of political weight can quickly turn things around and make the office more powerful, and more dangerous, than written laws allow.
On paper, the Austrian president has greater powers than his US counterpart in some areas, like appointing top judges without the parliament’s consent. But the political tradition is for the president to take a back seat to the chancellor, usually the leader of the strongest party in parliament. Theoretically, however, a disruptor who wins the presidency can turn that arrangement on its head. That’s why many Austrians feared last year that nationalist Norbert Hoffer might ascend to the presidency—and it took a higher turnout than in the previous two elections to defeat him.
On Sunday, Serbia is electing a president. This used to be a largely ceremonial position, but now, Aleksandar Vucic, the current prime minister, is widely expected to win and try to run the country from the president’s office. That is a clear path toward more authoritarianism, and, given Vucic’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it may bode ill for stability in the Balkans.
Few theoretical studies have touched upon the built-in instability of systems with a popularly elected president at the head compared with those where the legislative election is the most important exercise of democracy. But Stephen Ganghof of the University of Potsdam made some interesting points in a 2015 paper that may explain what’s going on:
If the majority decides to delegate great powers to the executive—as modern large-scale democracies invariably do—then it must at any time have the power to dismiss the executive and select a new one.
The problem with a directly elected president is that it’s usually hard for the legislature to remove someone with a popular mandate. That mandate, according to Ganghof, interferes with the chain through which voters delegate power to the parties with their different programs. The personalization of politics, and the need ultimately to pick one person for the pinnacle of power, makes for less perfect representation.
Ganghof also points out the problems of a pure parliamentary system: Voters are not privy to the bargaining between the parties, and it’s harder to hold politicians accountable when they act in groups. These days, however, these problems appear to be a lesser evil than the danger inherent in personalizing the popular choice. It’s no accident that Germany, and the allied powers that guided it after World War II, chose a system in which the president, apart from having relatively few powers, is also elected indirectly. It’s a more foolproof system: Germans should know. Bloomberg