Is Argentina Still A Delegative Democracy?

October 11, 2016

In a recent article I discussed how the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman has fomented mass protests and suspicion throughout Argentina that the government might be complicit in his death. In this piece I provide evidence that the handling of Nisman’s death by the Fernandez administration may support the claim that Argentina continues to function as a delegative and not representative democracy.

First coined by Guillermo O’Donnell (1994), delegative democracy refers to countries that meet Robert Dahl’s definition of polyarchy but are not on track to become representative democracies.  Delegative democracies (DDs) characteristically have strong executives and weak legislatures.  Presidents in DDs rule the country as (s)he see fit and often are the main source (rather than the legislative body) of public policy. The country still operates as a democracy because there exists vertical accountability.1 Examples of vertical accountability include competitive and free elections, political rights respected by officials and the ability for political parties to exist and express different views.  Yet what keeps DDs from becoming fully representative democracies such as the United States or Britain, is the lack of horizontal responsibility.2 Checks to the executive’s power are nonexistent to limited at best.  O’Donnell asserts that Congress and the Judiciary are seen as a nuisance to the fulfillment of the president’s orders.1

The suspicious death of Alberto Nisman lends credibility to the assertion that Argentina, under the rule of President Fernandez, continues to exist as a delegative rather than representative democracy.  In the wake of Nisman’s death, Fernandez has unilaterally moved to dissolve the Secretariat of Intelligence (SI) and will replace it with the newly formed Federal Intelligence Agency.3 This unilateral action is a perfect example of rule under a DD president.  Neither Congress nor the Judiciary were necessary in the dissolving and revamping of such a large national institution. While neither branch was legally required for the decision, it remains an example of the broad power the office of the presidency holds.

This isn’t the first example of unilateral action by the Fernandez administration. In 2011 she released the Central Bank Chief, Martin Redrado, after allegedly failing to comply precisely with the orders of Fernandez and her top officials. Many consolidated democracies shield the central bank away from domestic politics in an effort to make the best long term policy, Argentina does not. During her nine year tenure in office, Fernandez has carried out many important decisions unilaterally.4

Of course Argentina is not a delegative democracy as a result of the Fernandez administration. Rather the failure to transition to a representative democracy has its roots in the financial crisis of the 1980s. Examples of delegative policies are riddled over the last 30 years of Argentina’s history. For example, both opposition parties agreed to increase the power of the presidency and abolish term limits.  A 1994 constitutional amendment allowed for immediate reelection of a president but forbade a consecutive third term. At the conclusion of the third term held by another, the candidate once again becomes eligible to run.5 While the amendment was passed by Congress it was a political move aimed at increasing the power of the presidency. A strong horizontal check to Argentina’s executive branch would have stalled if not shot down the amendment.

The overarching power of the Argentine executive branch has kept its citizens mistrustful of authorities. Due to the lack of checks on the presidency, citizens fear that the office can become too large and unaccountable to the of the people. As seen with the death of Nisman, protests are quick to emerge demanding accountability of their highest elected official. As evidence continues to emerge and protests grow, it is important to know that the mistrust has been slowly building as Argentines become fed up with the negative aspects of a delegative democracy.

As with most if not all delegative democracies, the strong arm of the executive does not imply that the country is headed toward authoritarianism.  Rather that it is not actively moving toward a strong representative democracy. As protests grow throughout Argentina it will be interesting to see if the long term consequences result in more horizontal accountability. While this may be less likely, keeping the president more accountable would be an important step in Argentina’s transition to representative democracy.    


1.       O’Donnell, Guillermo. “Delegative Democracy?” Available at:

2.       Larkins, Christopher. “The Judiciary and Delegative Democracy in Argentina”. July 1998. Available at

3.       Chapell, Bill. “Argentina’s President Dissolves Intelligence Agency, Citing Prosecutor’s Death”. January 26, 2015. Available at:

4.       Badkar, Mamta. “Here’s How Cristina Fernandez is Destroying Argentina’s Economy.” March 3, 2012. Available at:

5.       “Argentina 1994”. Available at:


About Author(s)

Connor Weber's picture
Connor Weber
Connor Weber is an undergraduate senior at the University of Pittsburgh where he majors in Political Science along with a minor in Spanish and a certificate in Latin American studies. In the Spring of 2013 he studied abroad in Cuba for the semester as part of the program Pitt in Cuba. His time there greatly shaped his interest in U.S. foreign policy and U.S. & Latin American relations. He currently works as an intern for Panoramas and is eager to conduct research this summer in Costa Rica.