Latin American democracy: time to experiment

About the author
John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies.

Ecuadoreans voted massively on 15 April 2007 in favour of holding a constituent assembly. The referendum result was an important victory for the president elected in November 2006, Rafael Correa. He is seeking to exploit a deep-rooted public hostility towards the country's political class to rewrite his country's political ground-rules, partly by extending political participation. In doing so, he appears to be following in the footsteps of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

In the event, some three-quarters of Ecuadorean voters gave Correa's plans to rewrite the constitution their support, albeit with a fairly low voter turn-out in a nation where voting is compulsory. The elections to a constituent assembly are now due to take place in September 2007. The assembly will then have at least 180 days in which to come up with a new constitutional draft. The assembly is to have "full powers", which means (in theory at least) that it will enjoy supremacy over the existing chamber of deputies.

Correa's plans to hold a referendum had been at the centre of his appeal to voters during two rounds of presidential voting in the October-November election. He argued that this was what was required if his new government was to tackle the power of the country's established political elite. Only such a reform, he argued, would allow the country's poor majority - to whom his campaign was mainly directed - to participate fully and effectively in the affairs of state.

To emphasise his antipathy to what he has called the partidocracia, Correa refused to endorse any candidates in the 2006 legislative elections, a high-risk strategy since he now has no organised backing in parliament and has to rely on a motley coalition to endorse government decisions. Parliamentary approval to hold a referendum was only achieved after fifty-seven opposition deputies were suspended for ostensibly acting in an anti-constitutional way.

Correa's critics accuse him of running roughshod over Ecuador's political institutions, and using his current public support to manipulate the country's constitution to his own devices. Rather than opening up the political system, they accuse him of simply following in the footsteps of Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, in seeking to subvert democratic institutions.

In the last decade, Ecuador has been one of Latin America's most unstable countries. Between 1996 and 2005, three elected presidents have been forced out before they could finish their allotted four-year terms. There has been almost constant friction between the executive and the legislature ever since the end of military rule in the late 1970s. A new constitution, introduced as recently as 1998, has not helped matters. And the country's main political parties have suffered a much of an erosion of public support as anywhere in Latin America. They are widely reviled as being both inept and corrupt.

Also in openDemocracy on new politics in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela:

Guy Hedgecoe, "Ecuador's election surprise"
(17 October 2006)

Guy Hedgecoe, "Ecuador: protest and power"
(28 November 2006)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez at his peak"
(28 March 2007)

Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez: yo, el supreme" (13 April 2007)

The Venezuelan precedent

In some ways, this mood of antipathy towards conventional politics parallels the situation which, in 1999, led to the election victory of Chávez in Venezuela. Once elected on a wave of antipathy towards the country's two main parties, Chávez moved swiftly towards reformulating the constitution. First he first won ratification for holding a constituent assembly in a referendum. Then the government won a large majority in the assembly, and was able to reform the country's political ground-rules as it sought fit, among other things extending the president's term to six years (previously it had been four) and removing the legal bar on immediate re-election. Then the new constitutional draft was approved by plebiscite, and finally Chávez won fresh presidential elections under the new rules.

The Venezuelan experiment in institutional re-engineering picked up - in rather different circumstances - on an earlier experiment by the then president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori, having actually closed down congress in 1992, proceeded to elect a new legislature with powers to rewrite the constitution. The new constitution was also then submitted to a plebiscite. The 1993 constitution also removed the legal impediment to presidential re-election, paving the way for Fujimori's handsome electoral victory two years later. Fujimori sought to bypass democratic institutions, concentrating power in his own hands.

But Fujimori's policy objectives differed greatly from those of Chávez. He used his enhanced presidential power to push through an agenda of far-reaching privatisation and economic liberalisation, whereas Chávez has sought to reverse the Washington consensus-based policies of previous Venezuelan governments. But like Chávez, and more recently Correa, Fujimori justified his attempts to refashion the political system by responding to a deep sense of disillusion among voters with the workings of the partidocracia.

The Bolivian experience

Bolivia provides a more recent example of the attempt to rebuild political institutions, and for Correa it may be a more influential precedent than Venezuela. The election victory of Evo Morales in December 2005, like those of Correa and Chávez, was fuelled by a powerful adverse reaction by voters to what had gone before. In October 2003, the government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, one of Bolivia's wealthiest businessmen, was brought down by public protests. Morales picked up on that spirit of rejection.

Bolivian plans for constitutional reform - currently being debated in the colonial city of Sucre - involve widening the channels for participation in politics, especially on the part of Bolivia's hitherto largely excluded indigenous population. Ecuador and Bolivia are among the south American countries with proportionately the largest indigenous populations, as well as being countries where indigenous peoples have emerged in recent years as powerful political actors.

Closely connected to indigenous politics is the issue of natural-resource use, a lively topic in both Bolivia as well as in Ecuador. Bolivia in 2006 brought back into national ownership the country's gas resources while, in Ecuador, Correa's predecessor had presided over the withdrawal of Occidental Petroleum, the country's largest foreign investor. In both countries, the activities of foreign multinationals have been a potent political issue.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies. He is the author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992), Fujimori's Peru (ILAS, 1998), and Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005). He is the editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Institute for the Study of the Americas, London University / Brookings Institution, 2006).

Also by John Crabtree on openDemocracy:

"Bolivia's retreat from civil war" (June 2005)

"Peru: the next Andean domino?" (June 2005)

"Bolivia on the brink" (October 2005)

"An Andean crisis of democracy"
(November 2005)

"Evo Morales's challenge"
(January 2006)

"Peruvians prepare to bite back" (April 2006)

"Peru's chessboard" (April 2006)

"Bolivia stakes its claim" (May 2006)

"Peru: the institutional deficit" (May 2006)

"The return of Alan García" (June 2006)

"Evo Morales: the force is with him" (July 2006)

"Alan García's second coming" (July 2006)

"Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds"
(18 September 2006)

"Peru: outing the NGOs" (22 November 2006)

The new draft Bolivian constitution is supposed to be finalised in August, a year after the assembly initiated its activities. It is then due to be submitted to a national referendum. However, the assembly's progress has been hobbled by the right-of-centre opposition's refusal to accept the government's proposals on voting procedures. With less than half of the seats in the assembly, but more than a third, the opposition has held out for a system by which each reform has to be approved by a two-thirds majority. The tough tactics used by the Bolivian opposition in Sucre will not be lost on the economically powerful Ecuadorean opposition.

The president's re-election may also emerge as an important issue in Bolivia, and probably Ecuador. Morales, following the Venezuelan example, has made it known that he intends to stand for re-election as president under the new constitution, as well as holding fresh elections to congress. These would probably occur sometime in the first half of 2008. He believes his popularity will hold up. Assuming that the presidential term remains five years, re-election would confirm him in office until at least 2013. In Ecuador, where Correa is still only five months in to having only just been elected for the first time, Correa has yet to make clear whether he would follow down this road, but many of his critics assume this is his game-plan.

Re-election and participation

The impediments to immediate re-election have already been removed in several other countries of south America. In Brazil, it was the then president Fernando Henrique Cardoso who reformed the constitution to enable himself to stand (successfully) for a second term. He hoped thereby to reinforce the liberalising economic reforms of his first term. President Luis Inàcio Lula da Silva took advantage of this amendment in 2006 to win re-election as president, albeit on an economically more ambiguous ticket than Cardoso.

In Argentina, it was Carlos Menem who changed the constitution to enable himself to run again. He too sought an extended period in office to consolidate neo-liberal reforms. And like Fujimori in Peru, he sought to cultivate a direct rapport with the people in ways that bypassed institutional controls. Later in 2007, it is likely that President Néstor Kirchner will take advantage of this to stand again - that is, if he decides against allowing his wife Cristina to stand in his place.

In Colombia, also, President Álvaro Uribe has also successfully engineered a second term on the back of a constitutional amendment that broke with the long-standing limitation on immediate re-election. Buoyed up by the popularity of his first term, he took office for a second one in August 2006.

Only Mexico, of the larger countries of Latin America (other than Chile), seems to have held firm against the immediate re-election tide. Here, the 1917 constitution holds firm, and with it the sacred principle - on which the Mexican revolution was initially fought - that no publicly-elected official should be allowed to seek re-election. And, as those who would like to privatise the oil industry have repeatedly discovered, the Mexican constitution is not easy to change.

However, unlike the processes of constitutional reform in Venezuela, Bolivia and (possibly) Ecuador, the one-off removal of impediments to re-election in Brazil, Colombia and Argentina did not involve projects designed to enhance participation by those at the margins of the political system. It is here that the three Andean countries are seeking to breaking new ground. Although critics of Hugo Chávez would argue that this has not led to popular empowerment, rather the concentration of power in the president, there can be no doubt that in Venezuela - at least for the foreseeable future - new stakeholders emerging and the power of the old partidocracia has been broken.

Whether constitutional change in Ecuador or Bolivia really leads to empowerment of the previously excluded, or just to the enhancement of those in government, remains to be seen.