Populism and Accountability


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April 20, 2022

Populism and Accountability

  • accountability
  • Democracy
  • Populism

One central concept of contemporary social and political science is that of accountability. The presupposition that popular sovereignty requires that rulers be accountable to the people is a universal tenet of democratic theory. There is less agreement, however, on how to produce governmental accountability. As processes of democratic consolidation unfolded in the third-wave democracies, a liberal model of accountability as limited government gained ground, as many analysts called attention to existing rule of law deficits in the recently established regimes. The theory and practice of populism entailed a normative and epistemological break with that model for it is based on an alternative vision of democracy that requires, for its realization, the dismantling of those mechanisms of accountability that liberals sought to strengthen. 

The challenge that populism poses to mainstream approaches to democracy and accountability is seen by defenders of liberal democracy as the confirmation that the third wave of democratization has exhausted itself and a shift from democracy to authoritarianism is underway. Liberals see populism as antithetical to any notion of accountable government, a claim they justify by calling attention upon the negative effects that populism interventions have on democratic institutional arrangements. Once in power, they argue, populist administrations set into motion a dynamic of regime hybridization (or disfiguration) that, if left unchallenged, can threaten the very survival of liberal democracy (Levistky and Loxton 2003; Mude and Kaltwasser 2007:96; Müller 2017; Peruzzotti 2017; Urbinati 2014). Proponents of populism, instead, consider that their efforts at redesigning the constitutional landscape of existing regimes are but an expression of a constituent power to place constitutionalism at the service of the common good of people (Anria 2018; Colon Rios 2020) 

The links between populism and accountability have not been sufficiently explored, in part because of the major challenge that populism as a governmental exercise poses to liberal mechanisms of governmental accountability. What is the meaning that populism assigns to the concept of accountability? The paper seeks to address that question by contrasting liberal and populist approaches to accountability to suggest a post-populist and post-liberal democratic transformative path that could result in a stronger notion of accountability.

The liberal model: accountability as limited government 

The liberal model of constitutionalism was widely adopted by the new democracies of the third wave. The legacy of political violence and massive human rights violations that served as the background of the third democratizing wave made it impossible to reduce the question of democratization to the holding of free and competitive elections as had been the case of previous democratizing experiences in Latin America. There was a more demanding notion of democracy that entailed not only elections but rule of law institutions to control government officials and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. It is within that context that the question of governmental accountability as a tool to discipline and control public authorities gained prominence, to the extent that it dominated the agenda of democratization studies. 

The tacit diagnosis was that the democratization process was successful in establishing regular free and competitive elections but unable to consolidate effective rule of law mechanisms (Mendez, O’Donnell, and Pinheiro 1999, Peruzzotti and Smulovitz 2006; Schedler, Diamond, and Plattner 1999). While those democracies constituted an obvious advance when contrasted with the dictatorial regimes they replaced, they fell short when compared to Western representative polyarchies (which provided the normative model to emulate). Consequently, the literature called attention to a “transition to accountability” to complement the initial transitions to electoral rule (Fox 2007: 11). 

The transitions to accountability framework were deeply influenced by O`Donnell´s work, which set the contours of what would become the dominant approach to governmental accountability. His approach provided a) an analytical model for the analysis of accountability, b) a typology of the different sorts of illegal encroachments that a system of governmental accountability should help prevent, c) a typology of a type of democratic regime where such encroachments assume a systemic nature, and, d) a road map to guide efforts at democratic betterment. Let’s briefly review his contribution in those four areas. 

a) O´Donnell distinguished between horizontal and vertical mechanisms of accountability. Horizontal mechanisms refer to intrastate exchanges among accountability agencies while vertical ones involve the control of an external actor over the state, be it the electorate, the media, or civil society (O´Donnell 1999: 68). In particular, he emphasized the centrality of a subset of horizontal mechanisms for democratic life: those “…state agencies that are legally enabled and empowered, and factually willing and able, to take actions that span from routine oversight to criminal sanctions or impeachment concerning actions or omissions by other agents or agencies of the state that might be qualified as unlawful.” (O´Donnell 1999: 38). 

b) The lack of effective horizontal accountability, O´Donnell argued, undermine democratic dynamism in three ways: 1) the malfunctioning of balance mechanisms result in permanent executive encroachments over the jurisdiction of the legislative and judiciary powers, distorting the equilibrium among powers; 2) the weakness of mechanisms of rights protections and an autonomous judiciary generate encroachments on the rights of the citizens by privatized circuits of power, and 3) the lack of effective mechanisms of intra-state control results in illegal encroachments by unscrupulous elected officials, bureaucrats, or social groups on state institutions (O´Donnell 1999). 

c) O´Donnell proposed the concept of delegative democracy to call attention to a situation where the three above described encroachments were systematic enough to merit the distinguishing of a new subtype of polyarchy. The nature of illegal encroachments is of such magnitude that the structure of representative government cannot operate and is consequently replaced by a short-lived and crisis-ridden form of plebiscitary exercise that O´Donnell refers to as delegative democracy (O´Donnell 1994). 

d) Lastly, he established the parameters that should guide the agenda of democratic betterment: the strengthening of that subset of horizontal accountability mechanisms oriented to the control of the described forms of governmental wrongdoing. 

The populist model: accountability as unlimited elected government 

As democratic discontent proliferated regarding the performance of many third-wave democracies, populism appeared as a plausible solution to the democratic malaise. Populism proposed an alternative path to reconstruct the linkages between state and society than that of the liberal model. Its proposal found an echo in societies marked by generalized citizen disenchantment with mainstream parties and politicians to the extent that it marked the end of the democratic consensus that had characterized the third wave on the desirability of the liberal democratic model. 

Contemporary populism is predicated on a particular democratic theory that considers populism as the paradigmatic expression of democracy. Laclau developed the main tenets of such theory, although he remained silent regarding the specific institutional configuration of populism as a regime. The contours of populism as a regime are made explicit by theories of populist constitutionalism. Populist constitutionalism grants absolute primacy to the constituent power vis a vis the legal and constitutional order (Corrias 2016:9; Colón-Ríos 2020; Peruzzotti 2019). ln a proper democracy, advocates of populism argue, the principle of popular sovereignty should prevail over any other consideration: the goal of a populist constitutional project is to allow for the expression of an unconstrained popular will (Corrias 2016:10; Müller 2017:598). 

What does the principle of “unlimited elected government” mean for an agenda of democratic accountability? How does the populist model relate to O´Donnell´s conceptual framework for accountability? 

a) The democratic theory of populism assumes that horizontal and vertical forms of accountability are in a zero-sum interaction since they express opposing political principles. Horizontal accountability is a device of representative government, an political arrangement that is exclusively goal is to prevent the tyranny of the majority. A democratic project should aim for the opposite; the unilateral strengthening of vertical electoral accountability. 

a) At the same time, the transformative agenda of populism targets the structure of vertical accountability of representative polyarchy (political parties, parliament, the public sphere, etc.) to put it at the service of populist identification. So while it is true that populism relies heavily on vertical electoral accountability (Saffon and Bertomeu 2021: 7), the proper implementation of an interference-free process of identification requires the dismantling of the structure of vertical accountability of representative democracy. 

b) The critical democratic theory of populism targets the polyarchical model that was the normative reference point of the liberal approach to accountability. The “second transition” argument is replaced by a radical project of constitution-making that seeks to drastically redefine the structure of the constitutional that regulates the exercise of governmental power. 

c) Populist projects of constitution-making consequently target existing structures of horizontal accountability as well as of vertical accountability. A first set of reforms seek to reduce the autonomy of courts and other agencies of legal accountability, specially of Apex Courts (since they are the institution responsible for upholding the distinction between constitutional and ordinary politics) (Arato and Cohen 2021). A second set of reforms seek to decouple the logic of vertical accountability mechanisms from the rules and regulations of representative government. 

Populism, Liberalism and Democratic Accountability 

The populist critique might be right in their diagnosis regarding the power of elites to capture democratic institutions, yet its call for a relaxation of checks and balances not only weakens vetoes to redistribution but also the capacity of citizens to make claims (Saffon and Bertomeu 2021:29). Populism`s prioritization of constituent over constituted power, however, does not necessarily result in the expansion of institutional channels for democratic participation but in the strengthening of the power of the elected executive. While some of the institutional innovations promoted by populist administrations might enhance certain dimensions of vertical accountability and the adoption of redistributive politics, the plebiscitary nature of their conception of democracy ends up undermining whatever accountability gains are achieved. 

The shortcomings of the populist proposal and the authoritarian risks it involves should not justify the uncritical embracement of the liberal model of accountability. Rather, the present crisis of democracy should be seen as an opportunity to explore democratic innovations that could promote a positive democratic transformation. Any transformative project should preserve the valuable elements of the liberal model while simultaneously addressing some of its shortcomings. At the same time, reforms should avoid the populist route towards illiberalism while being receptive to its legitimate concerns on how to enhance the vertical dimension of accountability. 

A stronger notion of accountability cannot be build by turning its back to the principle of representation, for representation is a constitutive feature of democratic politics. Rather than opposing representation, efforts towards the construction of more inclusive polities should focus on the improvement of representative practices and institutions. Given that representation “helps constitute democratic capacities and practices” (Plotke 1997: 30), the expansion of democratic claims will inevitable result in more complex representative arrangements. Instead of engaging in counterproductive projects at institutional simplification, efforts should be geared in the opposite direction: expanding and improving representative practices and institutions to make them more open, effective and fair. The latter requires abandoning the zero-sum conception to accountability that informs the populist perspective to avoid the trap of an agenda that seeks to strengthen one dimension at the expense of the other. Efforts at improving the political and legal dimensions of accountability should not be at odds with one another but the priority of any effort at democratic deepening. 

The liberal notion of legal accountability cannot be abandoned since it is crucial for the exercise of political agency. Reforms of existing constitutional frameworks should be oriented to strengthening such feature while simultaneously devising ways for avoiding the oligarchic capture of democratic institutions. The former resonates with the populist concern to grant a greater role to constituent politics, a goal that can only be attained by extending and improving channels for civic participation and social accountability. That might require exploring subtypes of horizontal and vertical mechanisms that were not sufficiently emphasized by the liberal or populist models while simultaneously improving the signaling role of existing vertical mechanisms like elections and the public sphere. Such efforts will inevitably result in an expansion of the field of political intermediation and of accountability mechanisms. 

The populist critique of the mainstream approach served to expand the debate on accountability beyond the question of controlling unlawful governmental encroachments, calling attention to the question of the nature and quality of vertical arrangements. Populist critics were right in signaling properly democratic deficits that the liberal model overlooked. The former´s response, however, was predicated on a troublesome constitutional doctrine and notion of what constitutes democratic accountability. Far from solving the accountability deficits, the populist constitutional recipe aggravates them, undermining whatever gains in horizontal accountability had been accomplished and undermining the accountability role of vertical structures as well to the extent that it runs the risk of promoting an authoritarian reversal. While accountability remains a central feature of democracy, debates on accountability need to move beyond liberal and populist approaches so a stronger and more productive notion can be established. 

Enrique Peruzzotti, is Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Torcuato Di Tella University and an Independent Researcher at CONICET. 


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