Delegative democracy is a term coined by the Argentine political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell to describe democratic regimes in which presidents do their utmost to ensure that their powers remain unchecked by legislatures, courts, or other mechanisms of horizontal accountability (in which state agencies oversee and, if necessary, sanction public officials). The diverse set of Latin American democracies that emerged in the 1980s, following transitions from authoritarian rule, were polyarchies (to use the scholar Robert Dahl's term); a polyarchy is a democracy in which officials are chosen in free, fair, and frequent elections based on inclusive suffrage, the right to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, and associational autonomy (pp. 10-11). These polyarchies lacked features typically associated with established liberal democracies, such as a lawful state (estado de derecho) able to enforce inclusive democratic citizenship. O'Donnell criticized the literature on democratic consolidation for treating some Latin American democracies as incomplete versions of established liberal democracies and argued, instead, that they constituted a distinct type of regime.
In a delegative democracy, O'Donnell explains in a 1999 essay, "whoever wins election to the presidency is thereby entitled to govern as he or she sees fit, constrained only by the hard facts of existing power relations and by a constitutionally limited term of office" (p. 164). In this majoritarian conception of rule, the president is seen as the "embodiment of the nation" (1999, p. 164), and courts and legislatures are treated as nuisances to be, at best, tolerated. Examples include presidents Carlos Menem (Argentina, 1989–1999) and Alan García Pérez (Peru, 1985–1990). In some cases delegative democracies evolved into regimes in which elements of polyarchy were severely eroded, as in the cases of presidents Alberto Fujimori (Peru, 1990–2000) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela, 1998–).
Collier, David, and Steven Levitsky. "Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research." World Politics 49, no. 3 (1997): 430-451.
O'Donnell, Guillermo A. "Delegative Democracy." In Counterpoints: Selected Essays on Authoritarianism and Democratization. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
O'Donnell, Guillermo A. "Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies." Journal of Democracy 9, no. 3 (1998): 112-126.
Maxwell A. Cameron