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Crisp, Moreno, and Shugart: The accountability deficit in Latin America

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Crisp, Moreno, and Shugart. 2003. The accountability deficit in Latin America. In Democratic Accountability in Latin America.


  • ACCOUNTABILITY means not only that you answer to somebody, but that somebody can sanction you. Thus, the authors disagree with notions of HORIZONTAL ACCOUNTABILITY: co-equal branches of government are not accountable to one another, only to the voters (the only principal that can sanction the government). There are, however, horizontal relationships of "answering" to people--like accountability without the sanctioning mechanism. The authors refer to this not as accountability, but as SUPERINTENDENCE. Thus, ombudsman and the like are superintendents (because they only provide information to voters [who then sanction], they don't directly sanction on their own.


Over decades, Latin American dissatisfaction with government has led to all sorts of "accountability" reforms; however, most of these reforms have merely established new superintendents. Latin America's real problem is faulty vertical accountability: legislators are not responsive to voters, and voters do not sanction bad leaders at the ballot box. If voters "could and would punish misdeeds," then "separate agencies of superintendence would be unnecessary" (p 82).

Agents cannot hold agents accountable, only their principals can. Thus, this article locates the gaps in Latin America's vertical accountability and suggests better ways of fixing them than simply creating new superintendents.

SOME DETAILS (Timea's summary)

  • Presidentialism rests on horizontal exchange between agents with different vertical accountability ties to the citizenry. When vertical accountability breaks down, such that legislators fail to be good agents of the citizenry, there is a tendency for constitutional reformers to see superintendence agencies as a solution. However, they are poor substitutes for the exchange between vertical accountability and horizontal exchange. Whereas the parliamentary majority is collectively responsible for governing (can be held accountable) because there is a collective entity (the party) which governs, in a presidential system accountability is harder because party is emphasized less. Oversight mechanisms and sanctions have to be given to non-elected agencies to reduce shirking.
  • In Latin America, there are weak-party (less incentive to offer voters a commitment to a party) and strong-party extremes (legislators are not individually accountable to their constituents at all). Thus more independent agencies are created to replace the oversight and sanctioning power that should be provided by legislators, through horizontal exchange, and by voters through vertical exchange.
  • In Horizontal exchange, the different branches are independent (separate bases of authority), but they need to cooperate with one another in order to accomplish their tasks. Their functions overlap. Some examples of non-elected agencies taking part in a horizontal exchange include: a court may practice abstract review of the constitutionality of laws, or impeachment. But they also take place in vertical exchanges, such as fire alarms.

Separate institutions must also have different incentives, countervailing ambitions. This can be threatened when informal hierarchical relations exist between independent branches (i.e. inter-branch bargaining of votes for patronage). This short-circuits the horizontal exchange by placing the president in a de facto superior position. At this time superintendence institutions will be in demand.


  • Next, the authors identify the functions of a number of non-elected agencies within the justice system. To rate their independence, two dimensions are considered: the appointment process and the tenure in office. There is a wide variation in the degree of independence of courts and agencies of superintendence in Latin America. Superintendence agencies, except for supreme courts and constitutional tribunals, have limited potential for independent action.


Effective vertical accountability requires a fundamental party and electoral reform. Incentive structures have to be redesigned so that they maximize the potential for effective vertical accountability and so that legislators advance the broad interests of their citizens.

  1. The candidate selection process must enable legislators to feel that they serve a particular district/constituency, but to do so as members of a partisan delegation. The party cannot be emphasized over the district.
  2. Electoral rules must also be changed. Closed list systems, for example, can be either positive or negative, depending on the candidate-selection process that is used. The authors recommend the use of the mixed-member systems, where some members are elected in single-seat districts and some from party lists. This way, parties must present both candidates who are attractive to local constituencies and a party label that can attract list votes. Moderate forms of interparty competition may also provide a balance of incentives.