Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

On ‘Horizontal’ and ‘Vertical’ Accountability in Present-Day Latin America (I-CONnect Column)

Javier Couso, Universidad Diego Portales

[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. Columns, while scholarly in accordance with the tone of the blog and about the same length as a normal blog post, are a bit more “op-ed” in nature than standard posts. For more information about our four columnists for 2017, see here.]

Almost two decades ago (in 1998), the late Guillermo O’Donnell made a landmark contribution to the study of democratization, when he called for a focus on what he labeled ‘horizontal accountability’, that is to say, the process by which institutions linked to the rule of law (courts, national audit offices, and the like) make political authorities accountable when they violate basic aspects of the rule of law and constitutionalism (such as human rights and the principle of separation of powers), or engage in other types of abuses (nepotism or corruption) during the period in-between elections.[1] According to O’Donnell, in these regimes political authorities that had been democratically elected then ruled unconstrained by independent institutions, something which not only prevented democratic consolidation, but that was a source of daily misery for millions of people living under such ‘delegative democracies.’

I bring attention to O’Donnell’s enduring contribution prompted by recent events in Latin America, as well as by an important essay published by Juan Pablo Luna and Alberto Vergara, which suggests that, in addition to the lack of horizontal accountability in many countries of the region, there is also a growing problem with ‘vertical accountability’ in others.[2] Indeed, events such as the cooption of the Constitutional Court by Evo Morales’ party in Bolivia (in order to have the Court allow Morales to be reelected indefinitedly), or the absolute control of the courts exercised by the executive branch in Venezuela and Nicaragua, are a brutal reminder of how long the road to ‘horizontal accountability’ can be. Having said this, Luna and Vergara alert us to the possibility that countries with a working rule of law can have dysfunctional democratic systems (i.e. a lack of ‘vertical accountability’).

One such case if Chile, where the weight of the institutions of horizontal accountability in particular, the Constitutional Court, is threatening the capacity of the majority of the people to decide—through their representatives—on key policies. This is due to the unrestrained activism of the current conservative majority of the Court, which has become an instrument at the disposal of right-wing parties and business associations.

Another example of the risk of an excess of horizontal accountability is the petition recently made by former President Correa (of Ecuador) to the Organization of American States (OAS) to try and stop a referendum called by President Moreno, which will ask the people—among other things—whether or not they want to reinstate presidential term limits (which Correa had abolished several years ago).

Finally, if the ‘vacancy’ of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (of Peru) is declared this week, he will be the second chief executive to have been forced out of power within the past year or so (the last one was the former President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from her office in August 2016, accused of corruption).

As can be appreciated, the quality of democracy seems to depend on a delicate balance between some degree of ‘horizontal accountability’ coupled with a sufficient dose of ‘vertical accountability’. If, in the late 1990s, the focus was placed on the problems of the Latin American ‘new democracies’ to achieve a meaningful rule of law, now we have seen instances in which the political process as a whole has become too judicialized, leading in some cases to a veritable ‘government of the judges’. In other words, in some Latin American countries we might be seeing an exaggerated recourse to horizontal accountability to the detriment of vertical accountability.

Suggested citation: Javier Couso, On ‘Horizontal’ and ‘Vertical’ Accountability in Present-Day Latin America, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 20, 2017, at:

[1] O’Donnell, Guillermo A., “Horizontal accountability in new democracies,” Journal of democracy 9.3 (1998): 112-126.

[2] Luna, Juan Pablo, and Alberto Vergara, “Latin America’s Problems of Success,” Journal of Democracy 27.3 (2016): 158-165.


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