Rice political scientist examines elections throughout the world

A new book chapter from a Rice University political scientist offers an in-depth look at presidential and legislative elections in political systems with popularly elected presidents.

Mark Jones


“Presidential and Legislative Elections,” part of “The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Systems” (Oxford University Press, 1,017 pages, $175), analyzes democratic governance and popular elections in different countries around the world.

Professor of Political Science Mark Jones, a fellow at the Baker Institute, the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies and the chapter’s author, said that it is important to realize that popular elections are very different from country to country.

“Presidents are elected by popular elections in more than 100 countries in the world,” Jones said. “However, these elections are held in a wide variety of political contexts, ranging from very democratic to very authoritarian/totalitarian, and everything in between.”

In the study of presidential and legislative elections, Jones said it’s important to differentiate between democracies that are robust or dubious. For example, the United States is considered a robust democracy because of the considerable political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by its citizenry and the strength of its democratic institutions, while Russia is considered a dubious democracy because of the meager rights and liberties of its citizens, the weakness of its democratic institutions and the quasi-authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin.

Jones also noted that different types of election systems vary quite a bit in how presidential candidates are selected. The methods used to determine the winner fall into three general categories: plurality (when a winning candidate only needs to win the largest number of votes out of the field of candidates), majority runoff (when candidates are required to win an absolute majority of the popular vote to avoid competing against the first runner-up in a second-round runoff) and double-component rule (when candidates are required to pass a specific threshold of votes or cross a lower threshold while still besting the first runner-up by a specific margin). The United States now occupies a unique category as the only remaining presidential democracy that still selects its president indirectly via an electoral college; Argentina and Finland abandoned their use of an electoral college in 1994 and 1992, respectively.

When a president’s party possesses a majority in the legislature, Jones said, the president tends to enjoy considerable success in implementing his or her policy agenda, especially when his or her presidential legislative contingent is relatively responsive to presidential directives. However, when a president’s party lacks a majority in the legislature, the president runs the risk of being ineffective as the opposition blocks or waters down the president’s policy proposals.

ballot box with person casting vote on blank voting slip


“A good example of this is Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru, who narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori in Peru’s 2016 runoff presidential election,” Jones wrote. “However, Fujimori’s Popular Force party won 73 of the 130 seats in play for the country’s unicameral congress, while Kuczynski’s Peruvians for Change party won only 18 seats.”

Jones said that certain systems, like the runoff system in Peru, can cause problems for governance, due to their tendency to promote a fragmented party system. Jones’ highlighting of the Peruvian case turned out to be quite prescient. On March 21, after 20 months of ineffectual governance, Kuczynski resigned in the face of a renewed effort to impeach him that Jones said “was all but certain to be successful, given his miniscule base of support in the Peruvian Congress.”

Jones added that to avoid gridlock, presidents whose party lacked a majority of the seats in congress have in many countries formed either formal or informal coalitions with other parties to provide them with the legislative majority needed to pass priority legislation. These coalitions have at times been successful, with Brazil often mentioned as a model for how presidential democracy can avoid gridlock and instability, even within the context of a hyper-fragmented party system and small presidential legislative contingents. However, the past two years have witnessed revelations of widespread political corruption along with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff for partisan political reasons. The impeachment and awareness that political corruption played a major role in making Brazil’s presidential coalitions “work” has removed much of the luster from the Brazilian model, Jones said.

“I hope this chapter improves understanding of the diversity of presidential elections and systems of government across the globe as well as the manner in which institutional design can have a positive impact on governance and public policy production in the world’s presidential democracies,” Jones said.

For more information on Jones’ research, visit https://www.bakerinstitute.org/experts/mark-p-jones/.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.