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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 13: Technocratic Policy Making and Parliamentary Accountability in Argentina, 1983-2002

17 Sep 2004

  • Author(s): Javier Corrales


In the 1990s, many new democracies developed highly technocratic ministries of the economy. These ministries became powerful and assertive actors, bombarding the legislatures with complex bills. Unless they develop comparable levels of technical capacity, legislatures are at a disadvantage in evaluating these bills, and thus in holding the executive branch accountable. The result is a deficit of horizontal accountability.

Ruling parties may adopt three possible strategies in dealing with the executive branch: excessive co-operation, obstructionism, or “negotiated support”. In this paper, Javier Corrales argues that legislatures are more likely to exercise accountability when ruling parties adopt the latter strategy. Yet even under this latter condition, the incentives for legislatures to develop accountability capacities remain weak.

Stronger incentives come via opposition parties. Legislatures will develop more accountability capacity if opposition parties push for it, which in turn also depends on the strategy that they choose for dealing with the executive branch. Opposition parties also face (at least) three strategies. First, they can refuse to co-operate with the executive branch in implementing policies. Second, they can focus on denouncing issues of corruption. And finally, they can decide to become stronger “policy wonks”, challenging the executive on the particular details of policy, rather than merely on the overall ideology. Corrales argues that this last strategy on the part of opposition parties, which he calls “technical match”, is most conducive to the rise of legislative accountability.

However, these conditions have been mostly absent or weak in Argentina. In the 1980s, neither the ruling-party condition (negotiated support) nor the opposition-party condition (technical match) existed. In the 1990s, only one type of pressure (ruling-party negotiated support) operated. As a result, the legislature became more willing and able to hold the executive branch accountable, but never to a significant degree. It was not until the late 1990s, and for only a brief period, that the most important pressure for the rise of legislative accountability—an opposition party focusing on policy—became operational.

The paper shows that congressional development of technocratic expertise confronts a hard-to-solve paradox. On the one hand, the opposition party is seldom in the politically strongest position to inject technical expertise. On the other hand, the ruling party seldom has a strong enough desire to scrutinize the executive. The result can be an undersupply of technical expertise in parliaments. Argentina illustrates this paradox, as well as some ways to escape it.

Javier Corrales is Associate Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, United States.

Order PPDGHR 13 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).