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  • Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies
  • Guillermo O’Donnell (bio)

My interest in horizontal accountability stems from its absence. Many countries, in Latin America and elsewhere, have recently become political democracies, or to borrow Robert A. Dahl’s term, “polyarchies,” satisfying the criteria of fair and free political competition that Dahl stipulates. 1 This is no mean feat; even some countries that regularly hold elections fail to meet these criteria. My focus here, however, is on countries that do qualify as polyarchies, but have weak or intermittent horizontal accountability. This description fits almost every Latin American case except Costa Rica, Uruguay, and (perhaps) Chile, and includes such long-established polyarchies as Colombia and Venezuela. It also describes such new Asian polyarchies as the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as the older Asian polyarchy of India. Finally, the description applies to a number of postcommunist countries that might qualify as polyarchies, such as Croatia, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine; and perhaps also to countries, such as the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, which clearly are polyarchies.

Reasonably free and fair elections provide a means of vertical accountability in these countries, along with freedoms of speech, the [End Page 112] press, and association, which permit citizens to voice social demands to public officials (elected or not) and to denounce these same officials for wrongful acts that they may commit. Elections, however, occur only periodically, and their effectiveness at securing vertical account-ability is unclear, especially given the inchoate party systems, high voter and party volatility, poorly defined issues, and sudden policy reversals that prevail in most new polyarchies. As for social demands and media coverage, in the absence of duly authorized state agencies of investigation and oversight capable of parceling out responsibility and sanctions, they are extremely important, but sometimes they risk merely creating a climate of public disaffection with the government or even the regime itself.

Just as vertical accountability implies the presence of democracy, the weakness of horizontal accountability implies a corresponding weakness in the liberal and also the republican components of many new polyarchies. Polyarchies are complex and at times uneasy syntheses of these three components—not two, as the more common analyses of liberalism versus republicanism or democracy versus liberalism would suggest. Each of the three components is the product of a distinct historical and intellectual current. The democratic tradition springs from ancient Athens; republicanism’s roots lie in pre-imperial Rome and certain medieval Italian cities; and the liberal tradition has beginnings traceable to the feudal societies of medieval Europe, and later and more pointedly, to the England of John Locke and the France of the Baron de Montesquieu. The three traditions are partly contradictory, for each has basic principles that are inconsistent with the basic principles of at least one of the other currents. The tensions thus generated give polyarchies much of their uniquely dynamic and open-ended character.

Stated simply, the liberal component embodies the idea that there are rights which no power, prominently including the state, should violate. The republican component embodies the idea that the discharge of public duties is an ennobling activity that demands exacting subjection to the law and selfless service to the public interest. Both the liberal and the republican traditions distinguish between a public and a private sphere, but to different ends. For liberalism, the private sphere is the proper arena in which to pursue the fullness of human development. Hence liberalism’s inherent ambivalence toward the public sphere and more particularly the state: the latter must be strong enough to guarantee the freedoms enjoyed in private life, yet limited enough to prevent it from encroaching on those same freedoms. 2 Republicanism, by contrast, holds that wholehearted dedication to the public good—not the lesser undertakings of the private sphere—is what demands and nurtures the highest virtues. Meanwhile, the democratic tradition ignores these distinctions. Those [End Page 113] who participate in the collective decisions are not a virtuous elite and do not renounce an active private life. 3 Moreover, as Socrates and others discovered, the demos has an unencumbered right to decide any matter it deems fit.

The differing values attached to the public and private spheres by...