Feature Article

Latin America suffers reelection fever

Posted: 2013-07-25

By Daniel Zovatto, International IDEA’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean

Daniel Zovatto
Daniel Zovatto

The beginning of Rafael Correa’s third term as President of Ecuador (the second one as per the current Constitution) last May 24th, and the intention of presidents Evo Morales and Juan Manuel Santos – both also made known during the month of May – of seeking their respective reelections in 2014, makes clear that the reelection fever in the region enjoys excellent health.

President Morales’s reelection wishes got a slap in the back from the Constitutional Tribunal (CT) and from Congress. Later, the Bolivian Executive enacted a law that will enable Morales to run in the election for a third term in 2014. If reelected, he would become the president with the longest time in office in this Andean country. However, the passing of the law and the CT ruling are rejected by the opposition, who think that the Constitution is being violated and call the decision a “blow against democracy”. Were both reelection attempts to prove successful, they would join a long list of presidents who have done likewise in Latin America, many of who (but not all) are part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA in Spanish) and of the “21st century socialism”.

The recent reelections of Hugo Chavez, in October 2012, and Rafael Correa, in February 2013, preceded by those of Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner and Daniel Ortega, in October and November 2011, respectively, have done nothing but reinforcing a general trend in the region: most of the chief executives in office aspire to remain in the exercise of power for one or several more terms (or indefinitely) and, in a high percentage, are reelected and do so with convincing wins, many times in a first round and with wide parliamentary support.

The beginnings

In the 1980s, with the return of democracy to the region, hand in hand with the Third Democratic Wave, with the exception of Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay, in no Latin American country could a president be reelected in a continuous fashion.

It was not until the mid 1990s when in a majority of the Latin American countries a reelection trend began to be successful; now, it has extended to the current times. Peru, then ruled by Alberto Fujimori, in the 1993 Constitution, and Argentina, under Carlos Menem, after the 1994 constitutional reform, introduced continuous or immediate reelection (two terms in a row). These two nations started a trend which kept on expanding to a large number of Latin American countries. Brazil followed suit in 1997 and in 1999 so did Venezuela where later, in a 2009 amendment, approved that same year via a February 15 referendum, indefinite reelection was introduced. Then came a second wave of constitutional reforms which strengthened the trend in favor of reelection in the region: the Dominican Republic (2002), Colombia (2004), Ecuador (2008), Bolivia (2009), and Nicaragua (in 2010, via a ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice which declared that article 147 of the Constitution was unconstitutional).


Reelection can be permitted or banned in absolute or relative terms and, as such, allows for four leading modalities and a vast array of combinations among them:

  1. indefinite reelection;
  2. immediate reelection and prohibition of reelection for the following terms;
  3. prohibition of immediate reelection and permission for alternate reelection; and
  4. absolute prohibition of reelection.

Fourteen of the 18 countries allow reelection, even though with diverse modalities. Venezuela is the only one which permits indefinite reelection.

In six countries —Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua (via a ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice), and Ecuador— consecutive reelection is allowed, but not in an indefinite fashion (only one reelection is allowed).

In seven other cases, reelection is possible only after one or two intervening terms: Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Uruguay. Only four countries absolutely ban any type of reelection: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay.

Reelection in Latin America

Continuous or immediate reelection is a modality that usually –particularly in recent years—plays in favor of the ruling party and/or the incumbent president. This is so, to a large extent, because of the good macroeconomic times the region is enjoying, particularly in South America as a result of the high price of raw materials, the use of social programs to get political support, and the weakness and fragmentation in which many of the oppositions are immersed. Since transitions to democracy began in the region, already 35 years ago, all of the presidents who sought reelection attained it, excepting two of them: Ortega in Nicaragua, in 1990, and Mejia in the Dominican Republic, in 2004.

For its part, during the last electoral cycle in the region (2009-2012), 17 of the 18 countries in Latin America held presidential elections. In all of them, the presidents who sought immediate or consecutive reelection attained it: Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner, and Daniel Ortega.

Reelection is a very controversial issue. From the point of view of the benefit or the harm of reelection, there is a never-ending debate, in which major confusions surface (no difference is made between presidential systems and parliamentary ones), or in which the differences of political culture (between the presidential system in the United States and the Latin American one, for example), which play such a leading role in this issue, are ignored.

Critics hold that reelection exposes the political system to the risk of a “democratic dictatorship” and reinforces the trend towards self-oriented and predominant leadership attached to presidential rule. The champions of reelection, on the other hand, argue that it enables applying a more “democratic” focus, because it increases the freedom of citizens to choose a president and to hold him responsible for his performance, either rewarding or punishing him as the case may be.

The debate on reelection in general has been transferred in recent years to the topic of indefinite reelection. Its advocates argue that as long as their own parties confirm their leaderships and citizens vote for them in every election, indefinite reelection of the same person is not undemocratic.

In my opinion this is true in a parliamentary system, but not in a presidential one, since in the latter indefinite reelection reinforces the trend towards self-centered and predominant leadership and exposes the political system to the risk of a “democratic dictatorship” or to a plain authoritarian system. The disastrous reelection experiences with Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Joaquin Balaguer in the Dominican Republic bear witness to this.

In addition, indefinite reelection usually poses a threat on the principles of equality, equity, and honesty in the electoral race, because it grants undue advantage to the incumbent president, badly affecting the other candidates. The October 2012 electoral campaign in Venezuela, in which Chavez was reelected, is a clear example of this pathology.

The conclusions of a recent seminar on the issue point out that, in many instances, the figure of presidential reelection in Latin America has been characterized by being more misguided than right. This is so because it has served the aims of some rulers who want to stay indefinitely and even to perpetuate themselves in power, either by themselves or by others. In said seminar there was consensus, also, on the fact that the risks associated to presidential reelection are usually directly related to the performance of institutions in each country: those where institutions are strong, the risks of a pathological departure are lower, while they are stronger in those countries with weak institutions.

Independence of powers

A strong institutional system is characterized by the existence of both public powers independent from the Executive, particularly the Judiciary, and by an institutionalized system of political parties which are competitive.

As the comparative Latin American experience shows, in countries with weak institutions indefinite reelection, even the immediate one, of the president has serve the purpose of concentrating political power in the Executive, causing major damage to the principle of the division of powers and, above everything else, to the independence of the agencies of public power, to which the functions of jurisdictional and political control are entrusted. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua are some of the examples of this trend.

Assuming that the continuity and the excellence of an administration depend on a longer or prolonged term for one person is a fallacy: continuity and excellence do not depend on persons but on institutions.

Therefore, it is a must to leave behind the doctrine of indispensable men and women and to reinforce the principle of alternation in the exercise of political power.

As Carlos Malamud well pointed out in his article Monarchical Presidential Rules, “The problem of strong presidencies without institutional and political counterbalances is their drift to authoritarianism and corruption. Along with this comes the risk which self-centered rule entails and, where applicable, overlord rule, which in some situations borders the cult of personality.”

Having said that, what is behind the leader? Is there a political party, well organized and united, capable of renewing leaderships? Are there solid institutions which can withstand the attacks of certain lobbies? Generally speaking, as has been demonstrated so far in the case of Venezuela, the answer is a negative one.

Starting this year, the region launches a new electoral rally, since from 2013 through 2019 all of the countries will hold elections to elect or reelect their presidents and, as we will analyze below, Latin America will live a new reelection wave.

Regarding reelection in Latin America, the current political circumstances makes evident that there are three major trends, as follows:

1. Presidents in power who will seek continuous reelection. This has been the case with Rafael Correa, who was elected in 2006 and reelected under the new Constitution in 2009 and, again, last February. It is also the case of Evo Morales, elected in 2005, reelected in 2009 –with a constitutional change as part of the deal—and who will seek reelection in 2014.

Also, everything makes evident that in Brazil Dilma Rousseff will aspire to reelection in 2014, because her popularity and her performance place her as the natural candidate of the PT (Workers’ Party). Juan Manuel Santos, in Colombia, as we have already pointed out, also announced his intention to be reelected in 2014. In Argentina, things are different for Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner, who was reelected in 2011. Constitutionally speaking, she cannot be reelected for a third term. She has not stated her intention to be reelected, but her inner circle is clearly betting on it with the motto “Cristina forever”. It all hinges on what will happen in the legislative elections next October.

2. Wishes to return. This would be the case for Michelle Bachelet in Chile, where she was in office from 2006 to 2010; in Uruguay for Tabare Vazquez, who in 2005 took the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) to power; and very probably for Alan Garcia (president in 1985-1990 and 2006-2011) and for Alejandro Toledo (2001-2005), both in Peru, in the 2016 election.

Also, Antonio Saca, Salvadoran president from 2004 to 2009, has launched his candidacy as leader of the Movimiento Unidad (Unity Movement), a force that rivals with the largest parties in the country, ARENA (his former party) and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

3. Conjugal reelections. Historically, there were examples in Latin America in which wives took over as president because their husbands prematurely died while in office (Maria Estela Martinez-Peron in Argentina in 1974) or because they were the direct inheritors of their political leadership (Mireya Moscoso in Panama) or of their social leadership (Violeta Barrios-Chamorro in Nicaragua).

However, dating only a few years back, we find ourselves face to face with a new phenomenon, which consists in conjugal reelection. Nestor Kirchner made it fashionable in 2007, when he did not run for his reelection and managed that his wife Cristina Fernandez be elected. The idea was that later Fernandez would do likewise with him. The unexpected death of Kirchner, in October 2010, put an end to this scheme.


Currently, two wives to presidents or former presidents can aspire to continue their husbands work.

In Peru, strongly emerges the figure of Nadine Heredia, wife to president Humala, even though for that to happen there should be a reform that would entail a new interpretation of electoral regulations. In Central America, after the failure in Guatemala of Sandra Torres –who unsuccessfully tried to become a candidate to the presidency (she even divorced her husband, former president Colom, to dodge constitutional impediments)—, Xiomara Castro, wife to Manuel Zelaya, who was president of Honduras from 2006 to 2009, springs up as the left’s candidate for the elections next November.

Final reflection

In these 35 years of democratic trajectory, Latin America went –at the start of the Third Democratic Wave—from a region of strong vocation against reelection to one clearly in favor of reelection.

The current reelection fever (very few are willing to leave power and many of those who left want to come back) is bad news for a region like ours, characterized by institutional weakness, growing self-centrism in politics, party crisis, and hyper-presidential rule.

As the president of Uruguay Jose Mujica stated, the evil effect of the pathological deviation of reelection is that “individuals end up occupying more of the stage than the parties. The parties assure the continuation of causes, the individuals are subject to biology.”

During this period, we have been able to see presidents who manipulated and reformed constitutions for their benefit and others who, in contrast, did respect the current institutions.

Those in the first group (Carlos Menem, Fernando H. Cardoso, Alberto Fujimori, Rafael H. Mejía, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Alvaro Uribe) changed the rules of the game once they were in power, in order to drive custom made constitutional reforms that would enable them to be reelected.

On the other hand, the ones in the second group (Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Tabare Vasquez, Ricardo Lagos or Michelle Bachelet, among others), in spite of the high popularity rates they enjoyed at the end of their terms, did not attempt to force institutions and were faithful to the Constitution.

Summing up

The strengthening and consolidation of our still fragile democracies do not rest in the hands of charismatic and providential leaders.

As the former president of Brazil Lula da Silva said, “When a political leader starts believing that he is indispensable and that cannot be replaced, a small dictatorship is born.”

In my opinion, the road is a different one: through the seasoned and active participation of citizens; with legitimate, transparent, and efficient institutions; with a weight and balance system among powers; with a modern and well-institutionalized party system; with democratic leaderships and a solid civic culture.

As it has been accurately said by Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, “The Latin American 19th century was one of military strongmen. The 20th century suffered from enlightened redeemers. Both centuries suffered from ‘necessary men’.”

“May be the 21st century will bring a different dawn – Krauze continues –, one fully democratic, with no ‘necessary’ men, where the only necessary ones will be we, the citizens, acting freely within the framework of law and institutions.”

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Daniel Zovatto, Regional Director for Latin America & the Caribbean

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