Institutional Weakness as a Threat to Democracy


The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America

What is Institutional Weakness?

Over the past few years political science has woken up to the importance of state capacity in the construction of stable governments. Unfortunately, scholars have not paid the same level of attention to the strength of institutions. It’s easy to take for granted that improvements in state capacity will naturally strengthen political institutions, but Mala Htun and Francesca R. Jensenius explain, “Weak institutions are not just a matter of weak state capacity or ineffectively formulated legislation. Noncompliance with institutions involves resistance on the part of state and societal actors.” In other words, institutions are complicated. Moreover, it’s neither simple nor easy to improve them. 

Daniel Brinks, Steven Levitsky, and María Victoria Murillo try to make sense of a phenomenon they call institutional weakness in a recent edited volume called The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America. They focus on Latin America, because it has a history of weak institutions. Perhaps Scott Mainwaring’s pioneering work on party system institutionalization is the most well known. But this volume includes contributions from many scholars who focus on different areas of institutional weakness found in Latin America. 

Institutional weakness, according to Brinks, Levitsky, and Murillo, is the gap between the actual  and intended effects of an institution. It’s hard to imagine any institution that does not fall short of their intended outcomes, but strong institutions come close. Weak institutions, of course, make some positive effects, but will have a much larger gap. So, institutional weakness makes political reform irrelevant, because the intended effects fall short of their goals. Institutional reform may have to precede other aspects of an ambitious policy agenda to produce meaningful effects. 

Reasons for Institutional Weakness

Brinks, Levitsky, and Murillo identify the three types of institutional weakness as insignificance, noncompliance, and instability. Insignificant institutions remain weak by design. So, even when they want to produce change, they do not have the authority to make it happen. Noncompliance involves political actors who either weaken or at least reinforce the weakness of existing institutions. Finally, instability emerges when institutions frequently change. Institutions need time to develop so frequent changes often lead to institutional weakness. 

Presidential systems provide unique challenges for political systems. Gretchen Helmke finds, “Strong presidents beget weak institutions.” She goes on to explain why, “The more formal constitutional powers are allocated to the president, the more incentives legislative opponents face to ignore fixed terms and to deploy constitutional mechanisms for a president’s early removal.” So, legislatures, counterintuitively, become more likely to use impeachment to remove presidents when the institution is more powerful rather than less powerful. Unfortunately, the impeachment process does not empower the legislature beyond this singular act. 

Of course, noncompliance sometimes has democratic ideals in mind. For example, many constitutions represent forms of authoritarian inheritance where former dictators designed them to tilt the balance of power after the process of democratization. Moreover, it may take decades before a new democracy has the opportunity to create a new constitution through a democratic process. Chile has a constitutional convention active at this moment after thirty years of democratic governance under a constitution written during the Pinochet regime. Indeed, political leaders may find it desirable to weaken some institutions because “not all ‘strong’ institutions are ‘good”’institutions.” 

Remedies for Institutional Weakness

Possible remedies for institutional weakness naturally begin with institutional design. A poorly written constitution will require political elites to ignore constitutional law. Unfortunately, this environment establishes norms that weaken the rule of law and lead to more dangerous extraconstitutional behaviors. Most scholars would prefer elites to rewrite a constitution rather than to hold onto one that does not work. At the same time, many countries have fallen into cycles of “serial replacement, in which rules and procedures are replaced wholesale – without ever settling into a stable equilibrium.”

Moreover, the tactics of elites often depend on interpretation. Some actions may reinforce institutions in one scenario, while they weaken them in another. Impeachment is an example of a process with challenges to properly assess. Brinks, Levitsky, and Murillo explain, “It is often difficult to reach agreement on whether an impeachment is rule abiding or rule violating.” The impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo is an example where countries and international organizations had different opinions on the democratic legitimacy of his impeachment.

The single most important variable to strengthen institutions is likely the behavior of political elites. Institutional design is important, but elites must accept the formal rules of the game for institutions to matter. Unfortunately, it takes more than a single leader to strengthen institutions. Otherwise, their political rivals may simply take advantage as opportunities arise. So, the problem often involves a sort of prisoner’s dilemma.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps nobody has changed how political science thinks about democratic governance more than Francis Fukuyama. He was not the first to raise concerns over governance or state capacity, but among those concerned he may have the loudest voice. In an article in the Journal of Democracy, Fukuyama writes, “High-quality bureaucracies tend to be more an exception than the rule.” Institutional weakness is distinct from state capacity, but they have many similarities. Moreover, scholars may begin to realize strong institutional frameworks are the exception rather than the rule as well. Indeed, further research may find institutional weakness sets the stage for other problems of governance such as weak state capacity and even state capture. 

Indeed, institutional weakness is more than a problem of governance. While it does reduce the effectiveness of governance, the larger problem is it undermines democratic legitimacy. Steven Levitsky has written in a separate article, “Over time, poor governmental performance erodes public trust in politicians, parties, and, eventually, democratic institutions themselves.” The problem escalates beyond an issue of governance into a crisis for democracy. So, institutional weakness naturally becomes a form of democratic weakness. 

Daniel Brinks joins the Democracy Paradox tomorrow to discuss the concept of institutional weakness and the recent book, The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America. 

Further Reading

Rod Alence and Anne Pitcher (2019) “Resisting State Capture in South Africa,” Journal of Democracy

Daniel Brinks, Steven Levitsky, and Maria Victoria Murillo (eds.) (2020) The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America

Roberto Stefan Foa (2021) “Why Strongmen Win in Weak States,” Journal of Democracy

Francis Fukuyama (2013) “Democracy and the Quality of the State,” Journal of Democracy

Steven Levitsky (2018) “Democratic Survival and Weakness,” Journal of Democracy

Scott Mainwaring (ed.) (2018) Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (2019) Europe’s Burden: Promoting Good Governance Across Borders

Moisés Naím (2013) The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be

Marc F. Platner (2013), “Reflections on ‘Governance’,” Journal of Democracy

Bo Rothstein (2009) “Creating Political Legitimacy: Electoral Democracy Versus Quality of Government,” American Behavioral Scientist

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Daniel Brinks on the Politics of Institutional Weakness

Donald Horowitz on the Formation of Democratic Constitutions

More Episodes from the Podcast

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: