PRESIDENTIAL POWER AND POLITICAL CRISIS IN ARGENTINA
Gabriel Bouzat – Universidad de Buenos Aires
The relationship between crisis and presidential power posed by the panel constitutes a complex
matter. The Argentine political culture identifies the president as the center from which political
power is exercised. This means that the president is considered to be the person who is most
responsible for the crises and that all demands to overcome such crises are concentrated in him. In
the case of Argentina, the question as to which role the president should assume in the face of crises
cannot be answered without reflecting on how the presidential system contributes to the generation
of such crises. The purpose of this paper is limited to analyzing this last question.
Since 1930 Argentina has been incapable of consolidating a stable democracy despite having
attained in those years economic, political and social parameters comparable to those of more
developed countries.1 The political history subsequent to that decade is characterized by coup
d'etats, military dictatorships, electoral fraud, proscriptions, human rights violations and traumatic
confrontations among different sectors.
Since democracy was reestablished in 1983, only one of the presidents elected by the popular vote
has been able to complete his term. At the end of 2001, a serious crisis occurred that resulted in the
La Argentina sancionó su constitución a mediados del siglo XIX. Entre 1860 y 1930 el país incorporó a millones
de inmigrantes, estableció el sufragio universal, obligatorio y secreto (masculino) y llegó a alcanzar el 5º puesto
resignation of the President de la Rúa. Four presidents succeeded each other in a few days and the
last of them (Duhalde), elected by Congress to finish the term, did not succeed in doing so and
was obliged to call for early elections.
Different explanations have been given to explain Argentine political instability. Some maintain
that the crises respond to economic factors such as the poor economic growth, the enormous social
inequality and the serious as well as repetitive economic crises.2 Others emphasize the political
practices, especially “caudillismo,” the factious nature of the political sectors, and the antidemocratic
role played by different sectors such as the military and corporations. Also certain cultural traits
have been referenced such as the lack of respect for the rule of law.3
Despite such a broad range of explanations, few studies devote attention to the ways in which the
presidential system contributes to the repeated political crises. The thesis which I will argue is that
the presidential system generates problems of governability that lead to Argentine political
instability. This idea does not assume that the cause of the political instability is dictated by the
presidential system. Any attempt to diminish the multi-causality of such a complex historical
process is mistaken. Nevertheless, to understand the factors that contributed to the repeated political
crises, it is necessary to analyze certain pernicious characteristics of the Argentine presidential
system. I am referring to the enormous concentration of powers in the president, the strong electoral
mundial en cuanto a ingreso por habitante.
En varias oportunidades la Argentina ha pasado por procesos hiper-inflacionarios, recesiones, el default de la
deuda pública y privada, el congelamiento de depósitos bancarios y la ruptura generalizada del sistema de contratos.
Ver, G. Bouzat, “El Sistema Político-Institucional Argentino. Algunas notas distintivas”, Centro de Estudios
Constitucionales, Madrid 1990.
polarizations, the antagonism between political parties, the difficulty in forming stable coalitions, the
wild and disloyal oppositions, the obstructions and deadlocks within the various powers of the State,
the abuses of presidential power, and the difficulty in consolidating strong institutions. I will also
highlight that the constitutional reform of 1994 did not manage to overcome the principal defects of
the presidential system and that the retrenchment of the presidential powers was not sufficient to
modify the political practices that originated in the strong presidential tradition.
2. THE CHARCTERISTICS OF THE ARGENTINE PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM:
I will analyze the Argentine presidential system taking into consideration two models of
institutionalization of democratic systems. The objective is to illustrate a kind of internal
contradiction that the system displays. The models are inspired from the majoritarian and the
consensual models of democracy formulated by Lijphart4.
A. The majoritarian model:
The central characteristic of the majoritarian model is the absolute dominion of the rule of the
majority. The representatives of the majority of the people direct the government. All other
alternatives, like a system of checks and balances or the requirement of qualified majorities mean,
under the logic of this model, rule by the minority or at least the veto by the minority.
The ideal form of the majoritarian system is that which is organized in such a manner that all its
elements promote the principle of rule by the majority. It demands the concentration of executive
power in the government of a sole party that depends entirely on the backing of the legislative
power, which is considered to represent the sovereignty of the people. The legislature should be
unicameral or quasi-unicameral.5 The electoral system should be a simple majority. This implies
that the winner is whoever obtains more votes, whether it is a relative or absolute majority, and there
are no second rounds. The state should be centralized and the local governments should be
dependent of the central government. The system does not authorize judicial review and the
democracy should be exclusively representative.
In virtue of the dynamic generated by those elements, the model functions as a zero sum game. This
is so because the party that wins the elections obtains all the means of the government and that
which looses remains excluded from the government and acts only as opposition. Lipjhart6
maintains that there are two situations in which the majoritarian model promotes stability and the
generalized belief in the legitimacy of the system: when the majorities and minorities alternate in the
government, and, in the case of very socially and politically homogeneous societies, when there is
sufficient guarantee that the fundamental interests of the minorities will be safeguarded by the
government of the majority.
B. The Consensual Model:
The consensual model accentuates consensus, including more than excluding the opposition and,
Ver, A. Liphart, "Las Democracias Contemporáneas", Ariel, Barcelona, 1987.
Se entiende por sistema cuasi-unicameral o bicameralismo asimétrico aquel en el que aunque existan dos cámaras
legislativas sólo una de ellas concentra el poder político como sucede en Gran Bretaña con la Cámara de los Comunes.
Ver, A. Liphart, obra antes citada.
rather than considering the strict majority to be sufficient, it enlarges the governing majority. The
model allows the avoidance of zero sum game situations where the majority wins everything and the
minority looses everything, incorporating cooperative elements that produce results with a positive
sum. This model is considered apt for societies with strong ethnic, linguistic, or cultural
The consensual model is characterized by: i) the participation of the important parties in a wide
coalition in the government, ii) the strict separation between the legislative and executive powers
and the balanced bicameralism, iii) the multiparty system and proportional representation, iv)
decentralization and federalism, and v) the written Constitution and the veto by the minority through
C. The Argentine presidential system:
Taking the consensual model as a parameter, one can observe -with the exception of the “wide
coalition”- that the Argentine presidential system contains all of the elements of this model.
1. Separation of Powers: The system is characterized by a strict separation between the legislative
and executive powers. The legislative power consists of two houses and the executive power is in
the hands of the president elected by popular suffrage. The parliamentary responsibility of the
president does not exist and each power is considered sovereign in the field of its functions.
Ver A. Liphart, "Democratización y Modelos Democráticos Alternativos” publicado en “Presidencialismo vs.
Parlamentarismo” EUDEBA. 1988.
2. Bicameralism and Representation of Minorities: In Argentina the legislative power is bicameral,
and the members of both houses are elected from different electoral bases. The representatives are
elected directly by the people and three senators are elected from each province (two from the
majority and one from the minority) for a period of six years. Despite this different representative
base, both houses have almost identical functions and powers. The form of election of the
representatives and senators permits an important minority representation - in the case of the
representatives through the proportional system. On the other hand, the form in which senators are
elected allows local parties, which only have support in the provinces, to play an important role in
national politics when none of the main parties gain an absolute majority in the Senate.
3. Multiparty System: Argentina has a multiparty political system in which national parties and local
parties exist. Despite the fact that until mid-nineties only two traditional parties existed –peronism
and radicalism– the multiparty system has consolidated itself because of the crisis that the radical
party had to confront. In the last presidential election, three peronist candidates and another three
candidates of radical origin ran for office, in addition to various candidates from other parties. The
strong polarization that characterizes presidential elections has not impeded the rise of new parties,
and the legislative houses rely on numerous partisan blocs. Despite this, in the last decade peronism
has been consolidating itself as a dominant party.8 If this situation persists, the multiparty system
will become unbalanced by the existing disproportion between a hegemonic peronism and the other
minority parties that would find it impossible for them to govern by themselves.
4. Proportional Representation: Starting in the decade of the 60s, Argentina adopted a proportional
En las últimas elecciones el peronismo ha obtenido cerca de la mitad de los votos y la otra mitad se dispersó en
varios partidos. El triunfo de de la Rúa en 1999 fue consecuencia de una alianza de una alianza electoral entre los
electoral system for the election of national representatives.
5. Federalism and Decentralization: Argentina is a federal state in which power is distributed
territorially between the national state and twenty-four provinces. Despite the fact that a large
number of functions and resources are concentrated in the national state, the provinces maintain
political autonomy and some degree of influence on the national government.
6. Written Constitution and Veto by the Minority: Argentina has a written Constitution that is
considered to be the supreme law that can only be modified by a special majority. This limitation, in
conjunction with the fact that the Constitution imposes limits that the legislative majorities cannot
transgress, can take the shape of a sort of minority veto through the exercise of judicial review.
3. THE CONTRADICTION OF THE ARGENTINE PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM:
The constitutive elements of the consensual model aim to attenuate the rule of the majority requiring
or promoting the participation of the minority in the government (wide coalition), the dispersal of
power between the executive and Congress and between the two legislative houses, the equitable
distribution of power between the political parties through proportional representation, the
delegation and decentralization of power through the federal system, and the limitation of power
furthered by judicial review.
There is a great similarity between the consensual model and the Federalists’ conception of the
scheme of separation of powers. The Federalists’ objective was to institutionalize a form of
government that limits power through the division of society into many parts, interests and classes of
partidos opositores a Ménem.
citizens, in such a manner that the rights of individuals would be safeguarded from factional
interests. The division of society implies a division of power between two different governments,
the federal and the local, and within each of these, a distribution of power between different and
The Federalists9 did not trust the legislative bodies and conceived the system of separation of powers
as a means to limit the power of legislative assemblies, dispersing the expression of popular
sovereignty through various branches and bodies of the government. Despite the fact that they
considered that sovereignty resided in the people, the system of separation of powers ensured that
there was not only one expression of popular sovereignty. The purpose of the Federalists’ scheme is
to avoid the concentration of powers in one sole body granting to those who administer the other
bodies the constitutional means and the personal motivations to resist abusing their power. The idea
is to establish a system of checks and balances in which none of the governmental branches can
dominate the others.
The scheme of separation of powers in the Argentine Constitution was inspired by the American
Constitution. As in the United States, the constitutional bodies represent different expressions of
popular sovereignty. Thus, the president and the House of Representatives derive their power
directly from the people and the Senate from each of the provinces, which are taken as equal
Ver El Federalista Nº 10 y Nº 51.-
Notwithstanding the aforementioned, the Argentine system distinguishes by the enormous
concentration of power in the president. The strong presence of the president, elected through
popular suffrage in a contest in which the winner obtains immense power and the loser gets nothing,
allows for the incorporation of a majoritarian element in the consensual model.
The concentration of powers in the president conflicts with the other elements of the institutional
system that were conceived to distribute and decentralize power. This occurs because the
distribution of power pursued by these elements does not take place where power is more
concentrated and, as a result, is more sought after. While the elements of the consensual model –
separation of powers, bicameralism, and federalism promote negotiation and dialogue between the
various political forces, the dominating presence of the president distorts the system by diminishing
the importance of such participation in the act of governing. The fact that all of the means of the
government are concentrated in the hands of one person who has independent power, supported by
electoral mandate, limits the influence of the rest of the institutional powers. This allows a kind of
internal contradiction in the system because it breaks the equilibrium between the powers and
distorts the system of checks and balances.
This circumstance incorporates an important element of the zero sum game into the political
dynamic. The result of the presidential election determines the winners and losers during the entire
presidential term. During that period, it is unlikely that the government and the opposition will
construct an alliance or agreement. The logic of the system leads to the opposition considering it
reasonable to obstruct the Executive policies because it will unfailingly have to wait until the end of
the presidential term to be able to access the government, if it wins the elections.
4. CONCENTRATION OF POWER IN THE PRESIDENT:
The main defect of the presidential system is the large accumulation of powers in the president. That
concentration of powers, as we explained before, conflicts with the rest of the components of the
political system that tend towards the decentralization and distribution of power in various
institutional and territorial spheres. In order to understand this contradiction we must keep in mind
that the accumulation of powers in the president exceeds the authority granted by the constitutional
text. The application of the constitution distorted the system of separation of powers established in
the Constitution generating a process of centralization of power from the provinces to the National
Government, and within this, from the Congress to the president. This causes Argentina to be
described as a delegative and hyper-presidential democracy because the leader (president)
accumulates enormous powers and is not restrained by effective checks by the rest of the powers.10
Various factors engender the accumulation of powers in the president:
(i) The various leadership roles exercised by the president: chief of state, head of government,
and head of the armed forces. Until the constitutional reform of 1994, he was also the head
of the public administration and had the authority to appoint the mayor of Buenos Aires City.
(ii) In addition to the above-mentioned leadership roles, the majority of democratic presidents
have been the undisputed leaders of the political party in charge of the government. The
strong political leadership exercised by various presidents led in many cases to the
submission of Congress and the provincial government to the executive dictates. In
Argentina political loyalties tend to prevail over the institutional duties and weaken the
system of checks and balances.
(iii) The party discipline, that deepens when the party is in power, contributes to the
concentration of powers because it aligns the party officials –almost without exception–
behind the figure of the president.
(iv) The military governments, upon restraining Congress and the federal system, generated an
accumulation of powers in the president that was never taken back by the succeeding
(v) The excessive and disproportionate growth of the resources and public funds that the
president discretionally controls and the liberty that he enjoys to nominate his cabinet and
(vi) The judicial validation of abuses of presidential power such as the decrees of “necessity and
urgency,” the legislative delegation and the emergency economic declarations.
It is important to emphasize that the presidential system is not only a form of government and a
manner of separation of the powers of the state. The Argentine presidentialism constitutes a political
tradition. This characteristic grants it a strong social-cultural content. The large majority of
Argentineans identify the president as the center from which political power is and should be
exercised. This belief promotes a centralized exercise of power that contradicts the other elements
Ver Carlos Nino, Fundamentos del derecho constitucional, Astrea, 1992.
of the system of government instituted to decentralize and distribute power.
The accumulation of powers in the president was, in good measure, a consequence of the subjective
attitudes of reverence and recognition of the presidential figure. The strongman tradition and the
strong cult of personality, characteristics of the Argentine political culture, contributed to explain
this process. Thus, the President of the Nation acquired a special prestige, which manifests in the
fact that it is recognized by the majority of the people as the most important institution in the
institutional system. This circumstance reinforced those attitudes of recognition and –among other
effects– caused the majority of social and political demands to be concentrated in the figure of the
Nevertheless, the concentration of powers in the president should not be confused with a strong
presidency. The Argentine history has vacillated between strong presidents, who held an enormous
political power, and weak presidents, who, despite the accumulation of powers that they had at their
disposal, lacked sufficient political power to govern. The political weakness of presidents manifests,
generally, when they cannot rely on the support of the majority in Congress. Situations of this type
are common in Argentina by virtue of the different duration of the terms of the president vis à vis the
legislators and the loss of popular support that the former tends to suffer.
In this manner, the concentration of powers in the president means that the “consensual” elements of
the system do not fulfill the role for which they were created given that the participation of the
different political sectors is excluded from the executive power. The fact that partisan coalitions
depend on the will of the president and that mechanisms do not exist to institutionalize political
agreements -in conjunction with the strong antagonism and polarization that usually occurs between
political parties- dictates that the consensual elements end up acting as obstacles to the executive’s
This results in a situation of inaction and reciprocal vetoes where the president cannot govern
because he does not have the legislative support necessary to develop his plan of government and the
legislative majority, in contrast to the situation in parliamentary systems, does not have the
possibility of electing a new government. One element which contributes to this situation is party
discipline. The representatives of the different parities tend to act in the legislative sphere in a
monolithic manner. This makes it extremely difficult for a president to get the vote of legislators
from the opposition.
The paradox that occurs is that in the strong presidencies, the consensual elements of the system do
not exercise any form of control over the president and, in the weak presidencies, they end up
obstructing presidential management making government more difficult.
5. THE POLITICAL DYNAMIC FAVORED BY THE ARGENTINE PRESIDENTIAL
SYSTEM, ITS CONTRIBUTION TO RECURRENT POLITICAL CRISES AND TO
A tight relationship exists between the salient characteristics of a political system and the political
dynamic that the system promotes. The system’s structure has a profound impact on its behavior
because the political practices are channeled through the institutional mechanisms that make up the
The internal contradiction that the Argentine system manifests as a consequence of the concentration
of powers in the president –in conjunction with the rigidity and discontinuity of presidentialism-
furthers a political dynamic that endangers political stability. Those defects generate a lack of
flexibility in the system that prevents it from confronting political crises and promoting agreements
between the parties about certain fundamental issues. Likewise, the defects create incentives that
engender the polarization and antagonism between political forces, factious attitudes, wild
oppositions, and the abuse of presidential powers.12
Next, I will analyze some examples that illustrate how the presidential system contributes to the
generation of the political crises.
A. The Problem of the legitimacy of the president. The double leadership:
The different leadership roles that the president holds are one of the problems that the concentration
of powers in the president entails. The president is, at the same time, the chief of state and of the
government. This double leadership role carries an exercise of different functions. As the chief of
state he is the representative of the entire Nation, which requires that one be situated above the
La literatura política ha señalado cómo el sistema electoral impacta en la conducta de los votantes, cómo el
sistema de partidos políticos influye en el comportamiento de los bloques parlamentarios y cómo los sistemas
presidencialistas y parlamentarios determinan prácticas políticas diferentes. Ver “Comparative Constitutional
Engineering” Giovanni Sartori, N.Y. University Press, 1994.
Carlos Nino desarrolla una excelente explicación sobre los defectos del sistema presidencial argentino en su
various political sectors. On the other hand, as head of the government, the president has the role as
representative of a political sector and should defend his platform against the other sectors.
This tension has been aggravated by a political culture where the parties tend to identify with
national and popular movements. Argentina lived a large period as a disarticulated society in which
the various sectors (radical and conservative, peronists and anitperonists) identified themselves as
representatives of the Nation in such terms that they came to exclude the national identities of the
In a context in which the conflicting sectors reciprocally denied each other legitimacy, the double
leadership role of the president allowed the opposition to question the strong identification of the
president with a particular party. The identification of a particular interest with the whole Nation
generates conflictive situations. At some opportunities, for example during the presidencies of H.
Yrigoyen and J. D. Perón, that strong identification of the presidents with a political sector, which
considered itself to represent the national interests, led the opposition to stop believing in the
legitimacy of the president and beginning to exercise a disloyal opposition, contributing to the
rupture of the democratic system.13
Although the president can be conscious of the duality of the role that he must fill, it is generally
inevitable that this duality determines, to a greater or smaller degree, the ambiguity of his discourse.
libro Fundamentos de derecho constitucional, Astrea 1992.
H. Yrigoyen consideraba al radicalismo la encarnación de la causa nacional y consideraba a los opositores afuera
de la comunidad nacional. Lo mismo consideraba Perón con relación al peronismo y sus opositores.
If we attentively read the presidents’ speeches, we can observe how they consistently jump from the
perspective of a chief of state, situated above the different political sectors, to the stubborn defense
of his government and of the positions of the party to which he belongs. The problem is that this
ambiguity, instead of satisfying everyone, can end up satisfying no one. The Argentine political
culture, known for its factious character, leads to the opposition tending to reproach that which the
president says as head of his political faction. On the other hand, his supporters can feel affected
when the president, speaking as head of state, excludes certain aspirations of the party to which he
B. The rigidity of the presidential system and the reciprocal vetoes between the powers:
One of the most serious defects of the system of government is the lack of flexibility to confront
situations of political crises. The lack of flexibility is manifested in the absence of capable
institutional mechanisms to channel problems –such as the loss of presidential legitimacy, the lack of
legislative support for the policies of the executive- and to facilitate the formation of agreements
between different political actors represented in Congress.
The political dynamic of the zero sum game that presidentialism promotes generates a strong
antagonism between political sectors that impedes the minimal agreements on fundamental issues.
The difficulty in obtaining legislative consensus that is inherent in the system enables the sectors that
oppose the executive to use their positions of power to block the policies of the president. This
happens when the president cannot rely on legislative support to approve the laws that his plan of
government requires. The “rational” option that the opposition tends to envision in those scenarios
is that of obstructing and discrediting the government to be able to increase the chance of displacing
the president in the next elections. The opposition tends to consider the collaboration with the
government contrary to its interests because all achievements of the government are understood by
the people as achievements of the president. This is so because the presidentialism in Argentina not
only is a form of organizing the government, but also a tradition and political culture that mandates
that the exercise of the public authority in the national sphere be visualized by the majority of the
people as the exercise of the president’s will.
The rigidity of the system cannot be understood without keeping in mind the existence of two
independent bodies both equipped with democratic legitimacy: the Congress and the president. The
strict separation between both powers and the fact that each one is sovereign in the sphere of its
competences makes possible disagreements and conflicts between these powers. The problem
originates in the fact that the presidential system lacks the institutional mechanisms to resolve these
The problems appear generally when the president does not have an adept majority in the Congress.
Despite the fact that approval of laws only requires a simple majority, it can become very difficult
for the president to obtain this majority when his party does not have a legislative majority. The
party discipline impedes reliance on the support of representatives of opposition parties. The
paradox that results is that the president cannot develop his platform because of his incapacity to
En cambio, los sistemas parlamentarios o mixtos: (i) no tienen dos fuentes independientes de expresión de la
voluntad política del pueblo; (ii) o uno de los dos prevalece; (iii) o existen mecanismos, como el voto de censura contra el
gobierno o la disolución anticipada de la legislatura, aptos para destrabar situaciones de mutuo bloqueo.
obtain the needed legislation, but neither can the Congress because it does not have any means to
implement the laws that it issues, a situation that occurs without even considering the fact that the
president can veto Congress’ laws.
The Constitution does not offer a solution to this situation of reciprocal obstruction between the
powers. The political impeachment of the president is not a realistic possibility because it is
provided for only in the cases of bad performance and requires the approval of special majorities. If
we add to this institutional shortcoming the fact that the opposition tends to view the obstruction of
the president’s policies as convenient, one can clearly see that the institutional system lacks the
necessary flexibility to resolve these situations. Despite the fact that executive action can be
impeded by legislative blockage, the demands for governmental actions are centered on the
president. This demand, together with the fact that the president has an independent power based in
the direct popular mandate, leads presidents either to confront or to bypass the Congress. Moreover,
the reciprocal obstructions between Congress and the executive power can result in the government
being perceived as inoperative and generate a sensation of inefficiency and slowness that ends up
affecting the legitimacy of the president.
The zero sum game nature of the political dynamic generated by the system creates an extreme
polarization between the main candidates in each presidential election.15 One of the consequences
of the confrontation between two candidates with possibilities of winning is that before the elections
En las elecciones de Yrigoyen, Perón, Alfonsín y la primera del Ménem el país estuvo prácticamente dividido en dos
it is likely that wide coalitions will be formed in which very different minority parties cannot be
ignored because the ultimate triumph can depend on a small number of votes. Thus, the coalitions
that are formed ideologically dilute the proposals that are voted upon. This provokes a paradoxical
situation of severe polarization without too many ideological differences in the political
The problem is intensified because the antagonism between the parties generated by the process of
polarization does not dissipate after the election. Overcoming this antagonism does not depend only
on the political leaders. The polarization frequently leads the people to conceive of their vote as not
only for the chosen candidate, but as a vote against the other candidate. This circumstance makes it
difficult for the winner to convene the looser in some type of agreement. Thus, if the president
offers the opposition party space for participation in his government, many of his supporters can
view this as a type of betrayal. This can cause the consensus of the president to suffer because the
mentioned people may consider that the sense of their vote has been distorted by the agreement in
An example of this situation occurred in 1987 when President Alfonsín named a distinguished
peronist union leader as Minister of Labor. This nomination was strongly questioned by many of
Alfonsín’s followers. Another example was the alliance of President Ménem, first with a
multinational company and later with sectors of the conservative right, that were seen by many
peronists as betrayal.
The Alliance between radicalism and the Frepaso that carried de la Rúa to the presidency in 1999 is
another example of a failure that ended in a serious political crisis and the resignation of the
president. La Alliance, which comfortably won the presidential elections, collapsed in little more
than a year with the Vice President’s resignation. The lack of institutional mechanisms to convert a
electoral alliance into a governing coalition, the president’s fears that the appointment of ministers
from other sectors would be seen as a symptom of weakness, and the ideological differences
between the member of the Alliance led to its break up.
The situations mentioned demonstrate how the combination of political antagonism with a system
that lacks the institutional mechanisms to channel coalitions promotes the conditions that produce
C. The discontinuity of the presidential system:
In Argentina the president is elected for a period of four years with the possibility of one reelection.
The duration of the presidential term causes the political process to be divided into rigid and
discontinuous periods of time without the possibility of making intermediate adjustments when the
political circumstances require it. The rigidity of the term becomes problematic when the president
looses the backing of the majority and does not have the necessary support to govern. The early
resignations of presidents Alfonsín and de la Rúa after respective electoral defeats shows the form in
which the system’s discontinuity encourages the intensification of political crises. Those
circumstances create a situation of near ingovernability, largely because the Constitution does not
offer an adequate institutional mechanism to confront the situation, leaving the early surrender of the
government as the only remedy.
The figure of the Head of the Cabinet, incorporated in the 1994 constitutional reform, was not
sufficient to institutionally channel this type of crisis. Defeated in the legislative election of 2001,
President de la Rúa offered the Head of the Cabinet to the peronists, but the offer was refused.
Despite the fact that the Head of the Cabinet has important constitutional powers, which in
conjunction with those that the president can delegate to him make a cohabitation like in France
possible, the Argentine political culture continues identifying the president as the center of power.
This meant that the peronists were left with no other alternative than the resignation of the president
and the temporary designation of a new president by a Congress which was dominated by them.
On the other hand, the parliamentary systems permit that the day following the election in which the
results unseat the government, the leader of the new majority can form a new government, avoiding
a situation where the defeated party continues to exercise its functions during a time that can be too
long given its lack of support.
D. The plebiscite-like characteristic of the presidency and the low institutional quality:
The presidential institution in Argentina has a strong plebiscite-like character. This characteristic is
determined, largely, by the tradition of the strongman common in other Latin American countries.
The tradition of the strongman favors strong leadership that allows the presidents to rely on massive
popular and non-institutionalized support that enables them to prevail, without much difficulty, over
the other powers of the State. It has been common for presidents to make decision at an individual
level, accompanied by a small inner circle, without discussing them with the Congress or with
members of their party.
The plebiscite-like nature of the presidency complicates the consolidation of a modern democracy
and is one of the factors that contributes to the populism that characterizes Argentine politics. The
characteristics of the presidential leadership facilitate the veering of presidential action towards
messianic forms of power by the insufficiency of institutional and party controls. This allows abrupt
changes of the proposal put forward in the electoral campaign, as happened in the presidency of
Ménem, and generates the necessity of a permanent legitimacy that gives incentives to privilege
certain short-term, temporary achievements and to delay objectives and projects of structural reforms
that generate results on in the long-term.
The concentration of functions in the president favors a strong personalization of the system that
makes the system’s efficiency dependent on the qualities of the person who occupies the presidency.
When the president lacks the personal conditions that such responsibility requires –like in the cases
of Isabel Perón or de la Rúa– the stability of the institutions can be endangered.
An important virtue of any institutional system is its immunity from the personal qualities of the
individuals that occupy important positions. Despite the fact that no system can be immune from the
qualities of these people, the more the stability of the system depends of the suitability of these
individuals, the weaker it will be. The destructive balance attributed to an institutional design that
concentrates the powers in the president reinforces itself and weakens the rest of the institutions that
end up being co-opted or trampled on by the executive power.
E. The abuses of power by the president:
The strongman tradition and the lack of efficient checks facilitate the abuse of the president’s power.
Those abuses affect the functioning of the institutions and contribute to the generation of more
political conflict and crises situations. The circumstance whereby the president is considered to be
the center from which political power is exercised, and the fact that powers and expectations are
concentrated in his person, generates incentives for him to impose his will on the other powers.
Those abuses not only occur with strong presidents (Ménem y Kirchner) but also in weak presidents
(de la Rúa y Duhalde).
Consistently since the government of Ménem, the presidents have used various unconstitutional
devices to sidestep the actions of Congress. This has occurred when the president cannot obtain the
laws that he pursues because he proposes policies contrary to those championed in the electoral
campaign (Ménem), or because he wants to avoid the long negotiations that can be demanded to
pass a law or because he does not have the legislative majority necessary (de la Rúa).
The instrument generally employed by the president in those opportunities is the exercise of
legislative faculties through the issuance of emergency decrees. Despite the fact that the
constitutionality of those decrees is limited, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will nullify them.
Hundreds of these types of decrees have been issued to govern such important decisions changing
the legal currency, modifying contracts, renegotiating the external debt, and freezing banking
Although the use of emergency decrees may permit the president to develop his government plan,
those abuses generally produce new conflicts. When the opposition realizes what is happening, the
confrontation usually intensifies. The abuse of the governing through decrees usually decreases the
chances for the president to obtain legislative support for other issues generating a vicious circle.
Another mechanism that has been used is the declaration of an economic emergency. Although
emergencies are declared by Congress, these laws lay down very general purposes and grant the
president a broad delegation of authority to adopt the measures that he considers advisable to
overcome the situation. A good part of the state reform and of the privatizations of public
companies during the government of Ménem was implemented by the president exercising authority
delegated within the framework of an economic emergency. The emergencies tend to extend
themselves in time and to grant the president special power to widely regulate the right to property,
public and private contracts, the financial and exchange regime, and even prices.16
One of the factors that has led to the accumulation of powers in the president is the large discretion
that he has to dispose of public funds.17 This discretion allows the president to decide with complete
liberty the delivery of subsidies or the distribution of public works to the provinces and
La última emergencia económica declarada luego de la renuncia de de la Rúa a fines del 2001, que tuvo una
duración original de dos años ha sido prorrogada hasta fines del 2006.
municipalities. In order to understand the political impact of the use of discretional funds one should
keep present that the Argentine provinces do not have their own resources to finance their operation.
Although the federal system grants the provinces an important political autonomy, the provinces
depend on the funds that the federal state raises to subsist.18 This circumstance makes many
provinces into hostages of the national government.
The use that the president makes of public resources distorts the political practice converting it into a
permanent negotiation over funds instead of a debate over public policy. The president obtains the
laws that it is advancing by negotiating subsidies, public works, or loans from the Treasury with
governors, representatives, and senators. The public debate looses consistency and many arguments
are farces disguising positions motivated by interests linked to the use of public funds. This practice
weakens the political parties because instead of representing ideas they end up being managers of
another type of interest.19
The distortion of political practices motivated by the use of public money manifested clearly during
the interim government of Duhalde, elected by Congress to complete the term of de la Rúa. Not
even the circumstance mentioned, where parliament elected a president, allowed Congress to
recuperate political protagonism. The decisions of the government were not discussed in the
Las leyes de presupuesto suelen facultar al poder ejecutivo a modificar las partidas presupuestarias dispuestas
por el Congreso.
Salvo la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, ninguna de las provincias argentinas alcanza a cubrir la mitad de sus gastos
con recursos propios. Varias provincias reciben más del 90% de los ingresos con que cuentan de fondos federales.
Un ejemplo fue lo que sucedió en la sanción de una ley que modificó el Consejo de la Magistratura para otorgarle
al oficialismo un poder de veto en la designación y remoción de jueces. En esa oportunidad, se vio cómo los
miembros de partidos opositores que gobiernan algunas provincias votaron a favor del gobierno y en contra de su
parliament but in meetings between the president and the governors in which political support was
given in exchange for public resources.
These political practices easily degenerate into crimes as happened during the government of de la
Rúa. One of the goals that that government had advanced was the reform of the law that regulates
labor relations. Since the peronists controlled the majority of the Senate, it prevented de la Rúa from
approving the law. As the findings of a penal lawsuit revealed, some government functionaries had
bribed peronist senators to obtain their votes to approve the law. When the supposed bribes were
made public, the vice president resigned and a crisis began and culminated in the resignation of the
The use of public funds on the part of the president is not only limited to the purchase of political
will, but also to the manipulation of the press. As a recent report has indicated,20 the national
government allots important sums destined for official publicity with marked political favoritism.
The executive power is one of the main advertisers in the press, and the press has different degrees
of financial dependence on official publicity. This allows for the establishment of a system of
awards and punishments through which the press friendly to the government can be favored and
official publicity is restricted from those most critical of the governments actions. This practice has
an intimidatory influence that affects the freedom of speech, distorting the public debate that is
channeled through the press. On the other hand, the access to information is limited because the fear
propio partido en contraprestación a ciertos aportes de fondos públicos a sus provincias.
“Una Censura Sutil. Abuso de publicidad oficial y otras restricciones a la libertad de expresión en Argentina”.
Asociación por los Derechos Civiles y Open Society Institute. 2005.
of loosing necessary income generates situations of self-censorship.
The strategies and instruments to overcome a crisis situation should take into account the factors that
provoke the crisis. The combination of extreme presidentialism and a culture of political strongmen
creates a dynamic which generates problems of governability that contribute to the gestation of
situations of crisis. At the same time, the crises give the president the opportunity to exercise
extraordinary powers that, independent of temporary results that they might have, aggravate the
long-term defects of the presidential system and the institutional operation.
Many of us have thought that the defects of the presidential system could be corrected with a
constitutional reform like the reform of 1994. The political crisis of 2001 and the concentration of
hegemonic powers and practices of President Kirchner demonstrated that this was not the case. The
presidential political culture prevailed over the reforms implemented to weaken the presidentialism.
Political traditions and attitudes so entrenched are difficult to modify with only normative changes.