The presidentialization of politics: A comparative study of modern democracies edited by Thomas Poguntke, Paul Webb
|Reviewed By:||Michael Foley|
|Reviewed in:||Public Administration|
|Date accepted online:||14/01/2008|
|Published in print:||Volume 85, Issue 03, Pages 857-883|
The proposition that it is possible for parliamentary and party based institutional systems to exhibit signs of emergent presidentialism often generates more heat than light. This is particularly so in the UK where this particular theme tends to be treated with a mixture of covert fascination and overt suspicion. For much of the time, the 'presidentialization thesis' is given the status of an exotic outlier or thought experiment. Students are habitually invited to 'discuss' its speculative properties and this almost invariably leads to a stock conclusion that underlines both the proposition's evident disjunction with constitutional formalities and its apparent reliance upon party political rhetoric and the short run idiosyncrasies of individual leaders.
The editors, Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb, are to be commended for their formidable work in framing the study, defining the terms and establishing the rules of engagement across different states and cultures. They provide a masterly introduction on the differentiation of regime types (that is, 'parliamentary', 'semi-presidential' and 'presidential'); the component dimensions of presidentialization (that is, executive, party and electoral resources); and the selection of analytical indicators (for example, centralization of the control and coordination of policy-making, the establishment of direct leadership elections, leadership-centred campaign strategies). This provides the basis for a systematic study across 12 states (the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, France, Finland, Portugal, Israel and the US) and across one region (the Low Countries). The underlying rationale is one of discerning change and of establishing the criteria by which such change can be satisfactorily assigned to a broad process of
Each study follows a basic template but it also offers substantial room for individual variation based upon different historical, political and institutional experiences. For example, in their study of Spain, Ingrid van Biezen and Jonathan Hopkin conclude that the level of presidentialization does not follow a precisely discernible pattern and is largely dependent upon contingent factors: 'presidentialization has varied considerably throughout a period in which the main structural factors ...have either remained constant or moved in contradictory directions' (p. 124). Notwithstanding these variations, the study succeeds in revealing and corroborating a trend line towards leaderships with greater power and autonomy in their executive and party environments as well as an enhancement of personal resources as a result of electoral processes that have become increasingly oriented towards the provision of leadership. In coming to this conclusion on a mix of advanced industrialized democracies, the contributors make a series of intriguing observations. In Portugal and Finland, for example, while constitutional developments have reduced the powers of the formal presidency in favour of more pronounced parliamentary regimes, the position of the prime minister has grown in accordance with the presidentialization trends noted elsewhere.
The book's overall analysis is highly effective in giving due recognition to the influence of short-term contingencies and personal factors in the construction of leadership opportunities and resources. At the same time, it presents sufficient evidence to embed the developments in enduring structural features of contemporary society and politics. Presidentialization, therefore, is not confined to the institutional dimension but extends to a systemic phenomenon that embraces the substance of democratic politics as a whole. In examining the causes and conditions of this presidentializing trend, the contributions quite rightly point to the constraints and vulnerabilities of leaderships that rely upon the volatile properties of high personal exposure and individuated appeals in an increasingly fluid and segmented public sphere. Some structural logics may strengthen a leadership's hold over agenda formation, political communication and decision making. By the same token, other structural logics will threaten to compromise a leader 's position. The systematic marginalization of the collective cornerstones of government, combined with the eroding social foundations of party organizations, leave presidentialized leaders with few durable defences against the charges of individual culpability and personal accountability.
The final section of the book is titled 'Implications for Modern Democracy', a title that suggests much. But it runs to only three pages and is conspicuously cautious in style and tone. Given the wealth of material preceding it, the concluding piece on the consequences of presidentialization seem like an opportunity lost. Of course, in an analytical exercise on this scale, it is difficult to give consideration to every feature of what is a complex proposition. Nevertheless, a case could be made to have given greater attention to a number of features or issues implicit in the developing dynamics of presidentialization. For example, a summative reflection on the role of nationalist and populist impulses within the matrix of presidentializing systems would have given additional depth to the social and ideational linkages to the phenomenon. Another related inquiry might have focused on the effect that those 'presidential' leaders who deliberately distance themselves from the negative perceptions of 'government' have upon the processes of policy and administration. A much wider theme, raised by the substance of the research, is the question of what presidentialization means in terms of the kind of politics it reflects, supports and promotes. It is accepted that this issue would draw in a host of different, and arguably extraneous, dimensions - for example, representation, agency, political symbolism, citizenship, trust, accountability, power relations, legitimacy and delegitimation, antipolitics, the 'decline of the public argument'. Given that these strands feed back into the resource base of leadership politics, it could be claimed they constitute a genuine analytical dimension. In the same way that