Latin America: re-election and democracy

"Very few are willing to step down and many of those who did are trying to come back." The political ambitions of Latin America's political leaders are reshaping the region's democracy and constitutional practice, says Daniel Zovatto.  

Daniel Zovatto
4 March 2014

On 28 January 2014, the Nicaraguan congress ratified a game-changing reform allowing the indefinite re-election of the president, as well as opening the way for successful election in the first round with a simple majority of the vote. This reform paves the way for the current president, Daniel Ortega, to enter the next presidential race in 2016, if so he wishes. Ortega is now in his third (and second consecutive) term, thanks to a supreme-court ruling in 2010 which enabled him to run in 2011 - though this was in violation of Article 147 of the constitution.

This makes Nicaragua the second country in the region to allow indefinite presidential re-election, after Venezuela did the same thing in 2009. But the trend is apparent elsewhere as well. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, began his third consecutive term in early 2013 (the second as per the constitution), and three other presidents - Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, and Bolivia's Evo Morales - to seek their own re-election in 2014.

In 2013, President Morales’s wish to be re-elected was validated in the constitutional tribunal and congress. Bolivia's executive branch also enacted a law enabling Morales to run in the 2014 elections for a third term. If elected, he will be on course to become the longest-serving head of state in the Andean country's history.

There are other cases of presidential returns to power, or attempts to. Chile's Michelle Bachelet was re-elected in December 2013; Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez will seek a second term in the October 2014 election; El Salvador's Antonio Saca was defeated in the first round of the 2 February 2014 election.

All this reinforces the sense that re-election fever has become a general trend in the region: of incumbent presidents wishing to remain in power for one more, or several, periods - or indefinitely. In most cases have been re-elected with clear wins - often in the first round and with an absolute majority in congress.

The re-election boom

When democracy began to return to Latin America in the 1980s following years of military dictatorship and authoritarian rule, very few states in the region - Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay - allowed a president to be re-elected continuously. The incipient signs of a trend in this direction were seen in the mid-1990s, when Peru's Alberto Fujimori, (in the 1993 constitution) and Argentina's Carlos Menem (in 1994) introduced a right for presidents to serve two consecutive terms.

Brazil followed in 1998, and Venezuela in 1999 (and a decade later, Venezuelans approved an amendment by referendum that allowed for indefinite re-election). The trend became a wave, as constitutional reforms in the Dominican Republic (2002), Colombia (2004), Ecuador (2008), Bolivia (2009), and Nicaragua (2010 and 2014) made consecutive or indefinite re-election possible.

The re-election methods

How does re-election work? It can be authorised (or banned) in absolute or relative terms, and this has led to five variants across the political landscape:

* indefinite or unlimited re-election

* immediate re-election allowed once, and then "open" (i.e. the possibility of running again after a certain period of time)

* immediate re-election once only and "closed" (i.e. no right to run again)

* banning immediate re-election, but granting the right to run in a later contest

* banning of any attempt at re-election.

Fourteen of the eighteen countries in the region currently authorise re-election under a variety of methods. Venezuela and now Nicaragua are the only two countries where indefinite re-election is permitted. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador allow consecutive (but not indefinite) re-election; that is, only one re-election. Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Uruguay allow re-election only after one or two intervening terms. Only four states still forbid re-election: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay.

Consecutive or immediate re-election has in recent years favoured the incumbent and/or the ruling party. Since the transitions to democracy started in the region, every president who sought re-election got it, with two exceptions: Ortega in Nicaragua in 1990, and Mejia in the Dominican Republic in 2004.

A complex issue

But what exactly is re-election? Dieter Nohlen defines it as "the right of a citizen (and not a party) that has been elected and has held a public function with periodic renewal to nominate and be elected a second time or indefinitely for the same position (Executive) or term of office (parliamentary)".

Presidential re-election is a highly controversial issue. There is an endless debate around the benefits or harm of re-election to high political office. For example, no difference is made between presidential and parliamentary systems. Also, there is no acknowledgment of the differences in political culture, for example, between United States and Latin American presidentialism, which play a major role in this discourse.

Critics argue that re-election puts the political system at risk of a "democratic dictatorship", and reinforces an inherent trend towards personal and hegemonic leadership. The champions of re-election respond that it is a more "democratic" approach because it allows citizens to choose their president more freely and to make them directly accountable for their performance - rewarding or punishing them, as the case may be.

In Latin America, the discussion about presidential re-election historically centred around the concept of no re-election, but in recent years has focused more on indefinite re-election. Advocates argue that as long as their own parties reaffirm their leadership positions and citizens vote consistently for them, then indefinite re-election of the same person is not anti-democratic.

In my view, this is true in a parliamentary system, but not in a presidential one. The reason is that in the latter, indefinite re-election consolidates the trend towards personal and hegemonic leadership and exposes the political system to the risk of a "democratic dictatorship" or even a straightforwardly authoritarian system.

This was made evident by the re-election experiences - disastrous for their countries - of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico (re-elected seven times, ruling for twenty-seven years), Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Joaquin Balaguer in the Dominican Republic.

Moreover, indefinite re-election provides the incumbent with an unfair advantage over other candidates, and thus usually infringes upon the principles of equality, equity, and integrity of the electoral contest. The electoral campaign in Venezuela in October 2012, in which Hugo Chávez was re-elected, is a clear example.

A seminar organised by International IDEA concluded that presidential re-election in Latin America has often had negative consequences, for it has been exploited by some rulers who intended to remain in power indefinitely (whether by themselves or through a proxy).

There was also a consensus that the risks associated with presidential re-election are usually directly related to the degree of an institution’s power: where institutions are strong, the adverse risks are low, and vice-versa. Strong institutions have two characteristics: the existence of public powers independent of the executive branch (particularly the judiciary), and a system of competitive and institutionalised political parties.

Where institutions are weak, indefinite re-election (and even successive re-election) has in Latin America served to concentrate political power in the executive, damage the principle of separation of powers, and - above all - undermine the independence of the various branches of government (both legal and political). Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua exemplify this.

The electoral marathon: re-election trends

Form 2009-12, seventeen of the eighteen countries in Latin America held presidential elections. All the presidents who sought re-election were successful. A further election marathon is taking place from 2013-16 - again with seventeen countries voting to elect or reelect presidents. The likelihood of new re-election wave is high.

The current political circumstances show four major trends:

* Incumbent presidents who have sought or might seek indefinite re-election

This was true of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (until his death in early 2013) and most probably will be of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua - who, if he wins the 2016 election, would begin a fourth term in office, three of them consecutive.

* Incumbent presidents who might seek successive re-election
Ecuador’s Rafael Correa was elected in 2006, re-elected under a new constitution in 2009 and again in 2013. Bolivia's Evo Morales too was elected in 2005, re-elected in 2009 (with a constitutional amendment included in the ballot), and will seek re-election in 2014. Brazil's Dilma Roussef has said that she will seek re-election in 2014, as has Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos.

* Eternal return

Chile's Michelle Bachelet was in office from 2006-10 and starts a new four-year term on 11 March 2014. Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez - head of the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) - took office in 2005 and - again after a break - will seek a second term in the presidential election of October 2014. El Salvador's Antonio Saca served as president from 2004-09, and tried to return in 2014 as leader of the Movimiento Unidad (Unity Movement), which challenged the two largest parties in the country - ARENA (to which he formerly belonged) and the FMLN. In the event, Saca did not make it to the second round, but he will play a major role in its outcome.

It is highly likely that the Peruvian ex-presidents Alan Garcia (1985-90 and 2006-11) and Alejandro Toledo (2001-05) will - if they emerge from their current lawsuits unscathed - be tempted to seek re-election in 2016.

* Spousal re-election

Latin American history is full of episodes of wives succeeding their president husbands: among them Maria Estela Martinez-Perón in Argentina in 1974 (an inheritor of political leadership as the result of an early death), Mireya Moscoso in Panama, and Violeta Barrios-Chamorro in Nicaragua (who won thanks to their own leadership and popularity). A variant in recent years has appeared, spousal re-election, initiated by Cristina Kirchner's election in Argentina after her husband Néstor's term had expired.

In Peru, Ollanta Humala’s wife Nadine Heredia is gathering strength (though to be elected, a new interpretation of electoral regulations would be required). In Guatemala, Sandra Torres failed to be elected (after she had divorced ex-president Colom to get around constitutional obstacles); and in Honduras, Xiomara Castro, the wife of Manuel Zelaya (president 2006-09), stood for the leftist LIBRE party in the November 2013 election and came second.

A new dawn?

Since the onset of the "third democratic wave", Latin America went from being a region of strong anti-re-election sentiment to one that favours re-election.

The current re-election fever in which very few are willing to leave power and many of those who left wish to come back, is in my opinion, bad news for a region which is characterised by institutional weakness, a growing personalisation of politics, party crises, and hyper-presidentialism.

In these three and a half decades of democratic life in the region, some presidents have manipulated and reformed constitutions for their own benefit, while others have respected the institutional order. Those in the first group (Menem, Cardoso, Fujimori, Mejia, Chavez, Morales, Correa, Uribe, and Ortega) changed the rules of the game once they were in power to allow for their consecutive re-election (or even indefinite, in the case of Chávez and Ortega). By contrast, those in the second group (among them Bachelet, Lagos, Lula, and Vasquez) respected the existing institutional order and the constitution. It is surely significant that members of this latter group enjoyed high popularity at the end of their terms, without seeking to use this as a "lever" to extend their power.

In summary, then, the strengthening and consolidation of Latin America's still fragile democracies do not depend on charismatic leaders. Brazil's former president Lula said it clearly: "When a political leader starts thinking that he is indispensable and that he cannot be substituted, a small dictatorship is born."

In my view, the road to be taken is another one: through mature and active participation of citizens; with legitimate, transparent and efficient institutions; with checks and balances in place between the different branches of government; and with democratic leadership and a solid civic culture.

The Mexican historian Enrique Krauze expresses it well: "The 19th century in Latin America was one of military caudillos. The 20th century suffered with its illuminated redeemers. Both centuries suffered because of 'necessary' men. Perhaps the 21st century will see a new dawn, a fully democratic one with no such 'necessary' men, when the only necessary ones will be the citizens, acting freely within the framework of law and institutions."

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