Comparative Presidential Systems, Latin America

  • Luis Bernardo Mejía-GuinandEmail author
Living reference work entry



Presidentialism is a form of government in which, ruled by the Constitution, the President is elected by popular vote for a fixed period of time throughout which he exercises, both as chief of state and chief of government. This system of government establishes a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judiciary; however, Latin American Presidents have several legal attributions that grant them primacy vis-à-vis the other powers. In particular, Presidents in Latin America have the power to make laws.


Latin American presidentialism is characterized by the following. First, the President and Congress are elected in separate timeframes and directly by the primary voters (Congress does not have a relevant role in the election of the President). Second, the time lapse that the President remains in office is fixed. In other words, the President does not require a majority representation in Congress to stay in office. Neither does his time in office ends prematurely because of low popularity rates or adverse political environment in Congress. Third, only under extraordinary circumstances and by means of legal procedures, Congress may bring forward a political impeachment to the President, who if found guilty, has to leave office before his presidential period is due. Fourth, the President may belong to a political party that is not necessarily the majority party in Congress. In this context, the presidential regime in Latin America can work out both, as a minority government or as a majority government. Fifth, the President is the head of state, the chief of government, and he symbolizes the nation’s unity. Under the role of chief of government, Presidents in Latin America have greater attributions to determine public policies and to lead the country’s political decisions.


After the independence wars of the nineteenth century when the Latin American countries liberated from Spain and Portugal, a republican and presidential regime of government was first adopted. Founders of the newly constituted republics searched for a design of political institutions that departed from a monarchic system, in which hereditary power was the rule. Inspired by the 1787 United States Constitution, Latin American governments adopted certain order and distribution of state functions, whereby the responsibility over each function was trusted to a separate public organism. In this separate-powers design, it was conceived that the legislative and executive were to be directly elected by popular vote in separate elections and for fixed periods. Implicitly, this system was the search for a more legitimate form of government and meant to prevent one branch of power from gaining prevalence over the others.

While it is true that Latin American countries adopted the presidential system of the United States, it is far from true to assume that its development mirrored exactly the American model. Actually, the historic unfolding of this system in the region led to the emergence of distinct institutional features, creating new variants of presidentialism that little resemble the American archetype (Ginsburg et al. 2010).

Institutional traits

In Latin America, Presidents play a predominant role in the formulation of public policy and in the definition of the legislative agenda required to implement it. The protagonist role of the President is guaranteed by constitutional legislative prerogatives, nonlegislative faculties and party-powers that either facilitate or restrain the strategic options that Presidents have to unilaterally alter the status quo, block the change in the status quo proposed by another actor, and to create coalitions inside Congress (Mainwaring and Shugart 1997).

Constitutional Powers

The Constitutional powers granted to the President facilitates that his preferences are taken in consideration when laws are to be approved. In the region, Presidents have the following key attributes: legislative initiative, veto power, capacity to legislate by decree, agenda control, and emergency powers.

Legislative Initiative

All Constitutions of Latin American countries grant the President the faculty of legislative initiative. This enables the President to orient the work in Congress in accordance with the executive’s priorities and policy objectives. Some of the Constitutions further expand the legislative initiative to all the Cabinet. For example, in Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panamá, Uruguay, and Venezuela ministers or secretaries of State are authorized to present bills. Furthermore, Constitutions in Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela extend this faculty to other public functionaries like the vice-President (Orozco and Zovatto 2009).

In addition, various Latin American Presidents are granted with exclusive legislative initiative in specific public policy areas. In particular, regarding the annual central budget, in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela; once the executive submits the budget to the Congress, the Congress is not entitled to suggest budget increments, but rather only to propose budget cuts (Duque-Daza 2014). Other areas in which Presidents have legislative initiative in the region include tariffs, fiscal exemptions, and changes to the country’s administrative structure.

Legislative initiative gives Presidents an advantage over Congress in the sense that Presidents can prevent undesired changes to status quo, promoted by the legislative, from taking place, simply by not submitting specific issues to debate in Congress.

Veto Power

Veto is the mechanism by means of which Presidents in Latin America can reject or suggest changes to bills that have been approved by the Legislative. Veto is a powerful mechanism that permits the President to avoid laws he finds inconvenient or counter to its preferred status quo.

All Constitutions in the region grant Presidents the right to veto acts approved by the legislative. This veto takes two forms: total veto and partial veto. The total veto occurs when the Presidents rejects the complete act approved by the Congress; the partial veto takes place when the executive rejects pieces of the approved legislation. In Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, the Constitutions allow Presidents to partially veto a law approved by the legislative (International IDEA 2015). If Congress does not overcome the veto, the legislation at stake does not take effect.

In Latin America, the Constitutions establish two procedures to overcome the presidential veto: absolute majority and qualified majority. The first one states that half plus one votes of members of Congress are needed to bypass the veto. This is the mechanism in place in Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. Qualified majority, on the other hand, entails that two thirds of votes in Congress are required to surpass the Presidential veto. This is the rule that applies in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Panamá, and Dominican Republic. Constitutions in Ecuador and Uruguay have other specific procedures to lift the veto. In Ecuador, a qualified majority is required to surpass a total veto while an absolute majority is required to surpass a partial veto. In Uruguay, rules in place are even stricter as three fifth of votes in both chambers are needed to outdo the veto.

Capacity to Legislate by Decree

This power grants the President with the possibility of directly issuing laws, without the prior involvement of the legislative and therefore the alternative of establishing a new state of affairs aligned with the executive’s preferences. In the region, only the Presidents of Argentina and Brazil have the right to enact new laws by decree, in almost any field. However, these decrees are only valid for a limited time frame and Congress may revoke them. In Argentina, Congress has 20 days to state its position regarding a Presidential decree; if objections are not brought forward in this time, the decree automatically become law. In Brazil, legislative decrees that come from the President are valid for 30 days only unless Congress approves them as laws.

Constitutions in Honduras and Peru permit decree powers to their Presidents on economic matters only, while Presidents in Nicaragua and Venezuela have decree faculties on issues dealing with public administration (Orozco and Zovatto 2009).

Constitutions in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and México manifest that Congress is entitled to delegate legislative powers to the President for given periods of time, in specific areas previously defined by the legislative. Finally, all Latin American Constitutions enable Presidents to issue regulatory decrees that facilitate the implementation of Laws approved by the legislative.

Emergency Powers

A tool that enables the executive to avoid administrative obstacles when needing to resolve exceptional situations derived from an emergency, public hazard, or catastrophe. In such cases, Presidents dictate the necessary legislative measures to deal with the situation. Also under this type of circumstances and with the prior agreement of the cabinet, Presidents are entitled to suspend and/or limit constitutional and civil rights. Emergency powers by the executive are present in all countries of the region although they are subject to explicit Congress’ approval and restricted to a specific time limit.

Agenda Setting

Presidents in Latin America have yet other two attributes that expand their influence capacity over the legislative. First, is the possibility to request a fast track venue in a given draft bill’s transit through Congress. Basically this entails a request to Congress to give priority to specific bills. In Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Dominican Republic, and Uruguay, Congress has a maximum of 30 days to approve or reject the bill when priority has been requested. Second, is the option that Presidents have to summon Congress to extraordinary sessions to take place outside the Congressional calendar. Constitutions of all Latin American countries allow Presidents to ask for Congress’ extraordinary sessions, although in México the Congress Permanent Commission needs to provide its approval.

Nonlegislative Powers

Presidents in Latin America also have nonlegislative faculties granted by the Constitutions which are an important tool to strengthen the effectiveness of the government’s policies and to obtain political support from various parties. One of the most important of such faculties is the Presidents´ authority to appoint and dismiss cabinet members without the ratification by Congress. In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela, Presidents have no restrictions to directly appoint and let go their ministers. In Peru although the President has the choice to appoint the Cabinet, he needs Congress to provide clearance.

Therefore, cabinet allocation in Latin American presidential systems becomes a tool for creating legislative and governmental coalitions. Presidents whose political party lack majority representation in Congress may seek support from other political parties by appointing one or more of their affiliates to the Cabinet. Cabinet allocation to political parties other than that of the President will more or less mirror the composition of the coalition parties in Congress (Amorim Neto 2006). In Latin America, when Presidents change the entire cabinet, this does not entail the end of the government or the end of the governing coalition. Changes to the cabinet’s composition are a strategy used by Presidents in the region to better manage his relationships with the political environment.

Partisan Powers

The partisan powers of the President are related to both, the number of seats hold by the President’s party or coalition parties in Congress, and to the control the President has over his own party and the parties that make up his coalition.

Throughout part of the Republican life most Latin-America countries fluctuated among two prevailing situations. One, a party system in which the President’s party hold majority representation in Congress, allowing him, with relative easiness, to advance his political agenda. The second situation, one in which the President lacked Congressional support making him subject to constant blocking and legislative paralysis. This state of affairs began to change with the return to democracy at the mid-1980s when countries in the region started to develop multiparty systems. For example, in Colombia the enactment of a new Constitution in 1991 opened the political spectrum allowing the emergence of alternative political parties different from the two official parties (conservative and liberal party) that had prevailed up to that stage.

In this same direction, the Party organic Law 18,603 of 1987 issued in Chile, permitted that organizations that had till then opposed clandestinely Pinochet’s military rule come out openly and organize themselves as legal political parties. As Chasqueti (2001) highlights, countries that throughout the 1970s had bipartisan models, began evolving by mid-1980s to a moderate multiparty system (Uruguay, Argentina, México, and Venezuela). Other countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia that had reduced their party fragmentation in the 1980s observed an increase of the number of political parties throughout the 1990s.

The coexistence of presidentialism with multiparty systems caught the attention of the academy that pointed out the risks that this combination could bring to democracy’s stability. Particularly, the region could confront three problems. First, the possible surge of conflict among branches of government; second, the lack of incentives for the creation of stable coalitions; and third, the overall polarization of the political system (Mainwaring 1993).

Despite this risk, in practice, Presidents in Latin America with minority representation have dedicated efforts towards organizing solid legislative support to better govern, thus seeking the build-up of party coalitions (Lanzaro 2001; Chasquetti 2001). Actually, in Latin American countries with multiparty systems, the tendency to negotiate, cooperate, and to form coalition governments has become widespread (for example, in Chile, Colombia, Brazil, and Uruguay). This entails that the apparent difficult combination of presidentialism with multiparty systems has been attenuated in Latin America through the formation of government coalitions.


Presidents in Latin America are the chief members of government, whose legitimacy comes from their direct popular election that is independent from the legislative’s election. Generally, in Latin America, the President is the main actor in setting the country’s public policy agenda. This occurs thanks to the legislative powers that Constitutions grant the President, allowing him great margin of action vis-à-vis the Congress, as well as the authority to appoint the cabinet members. Presidents that have minority representation of their political party in Congress, build coalitions in order to gather the necessary legislative support to enhance their governability.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Political ScienceUniversidad de los AndesBogotáColombia