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  • Delegative Democracy Revisited

At the time of his death in October 2011, Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell had long been recognized as one of the world’s leading social scientists and one of democracy’s most insightful students and friends. O’Donnell was renowned for his scholarly writings on the origins of authoritarianism (especially the “bureaucratic” kind), on transitions to democracy, and on the problems that threaten new democratic regimes after the downfall of authoritarianism.

O’Donnell was a longtime member of the Journal of Democracy Editorial Board, and we are proud that some of his most influential essays first appeared in our pages. One of his most important contributions was his article on “Delegative Democracy” in our January 1994 issue. He wrote it to describe a new and troubling regime variant that he saw emerging particularly, but not exclusively, in Latin America. He contrasted this “delegative” species of democracy with its “representative” cousin. His worry was that the former, characterized by an overweening president to whom the sovereign people has supposedly delegated sweeping and almost-unchecked powers (usually to deal with a real or assumed crisis), would prove a dead end into which countries could stumble after authoritarianism ended, with no clear way out.

O’Donnell saw delegative democracy as displaying a reasonable degree of “vertical” accountability to voters in the form of free and fair elections, but lacking the “horizontal” accountability by which other institutions check the executive, safeguarding freedom through independent courts, the protection of individual and minority rights, and the rule of law.

In May 2015, a group of scholars gathered at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies to reconsider the concept of delegative democracy and its relevance to Latin America today. Their findings are highlighted in the set of essays that follows. Their publication in the Journal of Democracy was greatly facilitated by Harvard professor Steven Levitsky, co-chair of our Editorial Board, and we are very grateful for his assistance.

The first six essays explore the extent to which the notion of delegative democracy can usefully be applied today to six major South American countries with very different recent political trajectories: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The set concludes with an essay by Juan Pablo Luna and Alberto Vergara that seeks to draw out some general lessons from the individual country studies and ends with a call for “re-thinking the concept of vertical accountability itself.” Though these essays will be of special interest to students of Latin America, we believe a much broader audience will find that they contain some extremely valuable insights about the state of democracy today.

—The Editors [End Page 98]



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