Book Review: The Presidentialization of Political Parties

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Book Review on Italian Political Science Review (by Luca Verzichelli)

leaders_inspire_1200x627This volume is an important contribution to the field of comparative political institutions because it focuses on the growing role of party leaders who assume a relevant institutional power in many advanced democracies.  The notion of “presidentialization” is at the core of the volume’s theoretical framework. However, in contrast to other pieces of empirical research emphasizing the impact of institutional changes on the development of party structures, the volume endeavors to explore the phenomenon of the increasing importance of party leadership independently from the evolution of the institutional setting. This is, as noted by the editor in the introduction, the “missing link” in the study of presidentialization. More precisely, Passarelli aims to explain the varying intensities of “party presidentialization” one can observe by comparing certain countries using a simplified framework built on two separate dimensions: institutional presidentialization and party genetic presidentialization.

First, this volume is a very interesting contribution to our understanding of the changing role of party (and institutional) leaders in many contemporary democracies because it emphasizes the complicated relationship between historical party transformations and macro-institutional (or constitutional) changes. To solve this puzzle, Passarelli proposes a systematic analysis of the multifold dynamics of the process of party presidentialization), which should be in conflict with the “natural” attitudes of any European parliamentary democracy (dominated by collegial executives controlled by legislative bodies). Supposedly, it is very likely that a pure presidential form of democracy has been established in those systems. The structure of the volume confirms that such dynamics are, in the real world, much more compound and mutable, corroborating the arguments presented at the end of the comprehensive review on the literature on presidentialization and party personalization provided by Passarelli in his introduction. This ambitious proposition can be somehow tested by a large country-by-country comparison. For this reason, the rest of the volume, shaped on the idea of an extensive research strategy, includes eleven chapters devoted to different cases of parliamentary, semi-presidential, and presidential systems, thus covering a significant variety of political systems and democratic experiences.

Further, other examples of “institutional presidentialization” are covered in the first part of the volume, where the systems in Chile, the United States, and Brazil and the peculiar “semi-presidential” case of the French Fifth Republic are included. The cases of parliamentary democracies (or “premier-parliamentary democracies” like those recently developed in Central-Eastern Europe) included in the second part of the volume are also rather different from each other. For example, Poland and Ukraine represent the family of “newcomers,” while a good sample of the Western political systems from the UK to Australia and from Germany to Japan and Italy covers an evident variability including the typical “Westminster” and “power-sharing” examples of democracy.

Such a research strategy proves very useful in unveiling the complicated set of factors determining a great deal of variance in party presidentialization. The study of a relatively neglected case such as Chile (Chapter 2) shows, for instance, how the impact of party organizations has been rather malleable since the end of the Pinochet regime. On the other hand, some parliamentary democracies show that despite their stable rates of democratic performance and practices, their overall rates of presidentialization (or “missing presidentialization”) have changed considerably over time. The presence of specific institutional devices and the emergence of hierarchical party organizational cultures, for instance, have determined high levels of personalization in Germany (Chapter 10) and, to some extent, in the UK (Chapter 8). Conversely, the expectation of crucial “majoritarian turns” connected to the emergences of strong leadership and the consolidation of personalized styles of electoral campaigns did not come true in typical power-sharing democracies, such as Italy (Chapter 12). This is due to the persistence of several institutional and partisan characteristics. In other words, following the theoretical framework used by Passarelli, personalization cannot be a surrogate for the absence of institutional presidentialization.
We have no space here to cover the myriad of findings included in all the empirical chapters of this rich yet extremely harmonized collection of studies. We can simply say that the deep complexity of party presidentialization emerges in all the diachronic analyses included in the volume. This brings the reader to the conclusion that different factors must be considered to understand the comparative evolution of the phenomenon. Among them, historical path dependencies and the different developments of the constitutional settings—including the actual powers of the legislatures, the various steering capabilities of the executives, and, not least, the electoral regimes—are revealed as crucial variables. However, historical transformations of party organizations can make the difference, especially when they are originated by the peculiar visions of strong, long-standing leaders.

The editor’s final chapter provides the volume with a precious element of comparative assessment. According to Passarelli, many of the empirical findings provided in the country chapters support the idea that the typical approach based on the role of institutional setting on the transformation of party leadership should be somehow completed considering the findings of a more comprehensive comparison of the evolution of party genetic presidentialization. This is the main message the reader receives from this volume, which seems to pave the way to a new generation of studies based on the idea of a mutual interactive influence between the macro-institutional framework and the historical evolution of the most significant and long-standing political organizations at the core of democratic competition.

As always happens to any new path-breaking piece of research, the highest, most provocative point becomes the weakest (at least in terms of empirical robustness), and the most debatable argument surfaces at the end. In this case, the map portraying the dynamics of party presidentialization in the 11 political systems covered by the volume (p. 257) looks impressionistic and, as admitted by the same author, rather vague, especially if one looks to the relative distance between the measures of the party genetic presidentialization dimension. However, the implications discussed by Passarelli are fascinating. The phenomena of presidentialization and party leader personalization must be discussed in their continuous interactions under an adequate comparative research framework. By providing important evidence for such a basic but not irrelevant proposition, this volume thus proves to be an important text for scholars concerned with the future of party politics and the perspectives of political leadership within the democratic sphere.

Luca Verzichelli, University of Siena

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