The dilemma between governance and accountability

Politics and Economy

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

James Madison [1]

It is widely accepted nowadays the key role that political accountability plays in developed democracies. Elections stand for the main device of accountability. Politicians seeking a second period in office have an incentive to contemplate voters’ interests to boost their chances of re-election. However, as elections are not enough to discipline politicians and protect citizens, other mechanisms are required. In this perspective, the idea of the separation of powers and checks and balances spread since the classical writings of Locke, Montesquieu, Hamilton and Madison to become a cornerstone of modern theories of democracy. [2]

Checks and balances (CB) are the “principle of government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are induced to share power.” [3] Their ultimate goal is the protection of citizens from the abuse of power, so that strong CB are generally regarded as highly desirable. Nevertheless, at the same time as CB are strengthened, the scope of the executive to implement its policy agenda is reduced. This drawback, frequently ignored in the political economy literature, lies at the very nature of the CB: it is not possible to increase the checks on the executive without deteriorating governance. [4]

Let us take a look at some recent episodes in Latin America to illustrate situations where voters chose to weakening checks and balances. During the nineties, constitutional reforms that introduced or reinforced urgency bills increasing the legislative power of the executive were approved in several countries. Moreover, strong leaders, like presidents Fujimori in Peru and Menem in Argentina, manipulated the integration of the Supreme Court to increase their control over the judiciary (Finkel, 2004; Finkel, 2008). As several observers of the Latin American experience have argued, some of these last actions did not require an explicit referendum, but they would not have been possible had the president not been highly popular. In the two thousands, left-wing presidents have also enjoyed voters’ support for the weakening of CB. In Venezuela in 1999, President Hugo Chávez received the support of 72 per cent of the electorate in a plebiscite that introduced a unicameral legislature and reallocated legislative powers to the executive. In Ecuador in 2008 and in Bolivia in 2009, presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales obtained 64 and 61 per cent of votes, respectively, in plebiscites that reformed the constitutions on similar lines.

Which were the common elements in these experiences? Like Fujimori and Menem had done in the nineties, Chávez, Correa and Morales in the two-thousands sought citizens’ support to strengthen the executive capacity, alleging that such instrument was needed to overcome political stalemate and advance sweeping reforms. The substantive content of the policy reforms was very different in the nineties and two-thousands, but the allegation that the country needed radical reforms that could not be done without strong executive is very much the same.

In a recent paper, Forteza and Pereyra (2017) present a formal model of the trade-off between governance and checks and balances, and investigate under which circumstances voters may be willing to accept a weakening of checks on the executive. [5] In their model the executive is better informed about the need of a reform, and announces and commits policies. When voters and the executive preferences are not very different in terms of policy, the executive will announce that a reform is needed only when this is the case. However, when the executive has a strong pro-reform (pro-status-quo) bias, it always (never) announces that a reform is needed. The parliament always favours the status-quo, and then a reform can only be implemented if voters grant special powers to the executive which implies a weakening of CB.

After the executive announces that a reform is needed, voters decide whether or not to support the executive’s request of special powers. They face the dilemma between loosening the controls to facilitate the reform proposed by the executive, but at the cost of more corruption or policies that are not totally representative of their own views, and keeping the controls that put a break on corruption but at the cost of no reform.

Under which circumstances may voters support a weaker system of CB? First, voters expected gains from reform should be sufficiently high compared to the expected losses from rent extraction. Citizens must be convinced that the country needs key reforms that cannot be implemented with the existing system of checks and balances. Even if this opens the window for more corruption, citizens should see this as a “small” price to pay for the much needed reforms. Second, citizens expected gains from reform depend on the importance of the policy agenda and the president standing and credibility regarding the benefits of reform. Expected gains cannot be high unless citizens are convinced that (i) key reforms are at stake, (ii) it is highly likely that these reforms are beneficial and (iii) the president is committed to the reform program.

The model predicts two different situations that may come out. When voters and the executive preferences are aligned, the executive proposes a reform only when it is needed, in which case voters accept less checks and balances. However, an executive with a strong pro-reform bias or sufficiently high valuation of rents might always claim that a reform is needed, even when it is not beneficial for citizens. Aware of this bias, citizens will not believe in the announcement, but they might still grant special powers if both voters disutility from rent extraction is not too large and their own conjecture about the probability that the reform is required is sufficiently high. In this latter case, there will be too much reform and rent extraction in the sense that special powers and reform will occur not only when the reform is beneficial for citizens, but also when it is not.

In sum, the paper suggests that episodes of strong presidents who obtain popular support for the loosening of checks and balances are more likely to occur in circumstances of extended citizens’ discontent. In these situations, citizens are more likely to believe that sweeping reforms are necessary and are thus more willing to support strong men that promise to further reform, even at the expense of fewer checks on the executive.

1. Hamilton, A., Madison, J., and Jay, J. (1788). The structure of the government must furnish the proper checks and balances between the different departments. The federalist papers, 51.

2. The need of checks and balances arises most clearly in presidential systems. The separation of powers is in the essence of presidentialism, and checks and balances are crucial to limit the power of the executive in these systems.

3. Encyclopædia Britannica: Accessed 22.03.2017

4. We should mention that political scientists are aware of this dilemma. For example, Carrion (2006) explains the involved tensions very clearly: ``Governance, defined broadly as the capacity to formulate and implement policies in an effective manner, can sometimes clash with the demands of democratization. (...) Situations of extreme crisis, such as that experienced by Peru in the late 1980s and early 1990s, may exacerbate this uneasy relationship by persuading many to accept the claims of aspiring dictators that the country ‘‘cannot afford’’ democracy.''

5. An alternative explanation of the popular support that some presidents have enjoyed for dismantling checks and balances is presented in Acemoglu et al. (2013).


Acemoglu, Daron, James Robinson, and Ragnar Torvik (2013). Why Do Voters Dismantle Checks and Balances? Review of Economic Studies 80.3, pp. 845-875.

Carrión, Julio F., ed. (2006). The Fujimori legacy : the rise of electoral authoritarianism in Peru. The Pennsylvania State University.

Finkel, Jodi (2004). Judicial Reform in Argentina in the 1990s: How Electoral Incentives Shape Institutional Change. Latin American Research Review 39.3, pp. 56-80.

Finkel, Jodi (2008). Introduction. In:  Judicial Reform as Political Insurance: Argentina, Peru, and Mexico in the 1990s. Ed. by Jodi Finkel. University of Notre Dame Press.

Forteza, A. and Pereyra, J. (2017). The Trade-off between Governance and Checks and Balances. ECARES Working Papers.

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