Reelection, continuity and hyper-presidentialism in Latin America
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this analysis are the author’s and should in no way be construed to represent those of International IDEA, its Board and/or Council members.
On 28 January 2014, the Nicaraguan Congress ratified a game-changing reform allowing the indefinite and reelection of the President, simultaneously opening the way for successful election in the first round with a simple majority of the vote. This reform paves the way for President Daniel Ortega to enter the 2016 presidential race, if so he wishes. Currently, Ortega is in his third (and second consecutive) term, thanks to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling which enabled him to run the following year in violation of Article 147 of the Constitution.
This makes Nicaragua the second country in the region to allow indefinite presidential reelection after Venezuela did the same thing in 2009.
But this trend is apparent elsewhere as well. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador came to power in early 2013 for a third consecutive term (the second as per the Constitution), and it is the intention of Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia to seek their own reelection in 2014.
Last year, President Morales’s wishes to be reelected were validated in the Constitutional Tribunal and Congress. Meanwhile, in May 2013, the Bolivian Executive branch enacted a law enabling Morales to run in the 2014 elections in order to seek a third term in power. If elected, he would have ruled the Andean country for the longest time in history. Approval of the law and the ruling were both rejected by the opposition – who defined them as a ‘blow to democracy’— and deemed it a violation of the constitution.
Other returns to power (and attempts to) are worth noting: Michelle Bachelet in Chile was reelected last December, Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay will seek a second term in the October 2014 elections, though Antonio Saca did not make it to the second round in the 2 February 2014 elections in El Salvador.
This adds to the evidence that reelection fever, regrettably, is going strong in the region.
If all of these reelection attempts are successful, they would add to a long list of presidents who have done the same in Latin America. Many of these are part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America and of the ‘21st century socialism’ wave. The reelections of Hugo Chavez in October 2012 and of Rafael Correa in February 2013, preceded by those of Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner and Daniel Ortega, in October and November 2011, respectively, have only reinforced a general trend in the region: incumbent presidents wish to remain in power for one more or several periods (or indefinitely), and in most cases have been reelected with clear wins – often in the first round and with an absolute majority in congress.
Reelection boom in Latin America
In the 1980s with the return of democracy to the region, in no Latin American country (except Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay) could a president be reelected continuously. It was not until the mid 1990s that the current trend started gathering strength. Alberto Fujimori, in Peru’s 1993 Constitution, and Carlos Menem in Argentina in 1994, introduced consecutive reelection that allowed for two terms in a row.
Brazil did so in 1998 and Venezuela followed in 1999 – and ten years later Venezuela approved an amendment by referendum that introduced indefinite reelection. In the last decade, constitutional reforms in the Dominican Republic (2002), Colombia (2004), Ecuador (2008), Bolivia (2009), and Nicaragua (2010 and 2014) strengthened the trend in favour of consecutive or indefinite reelection.
President reelection methods
Reelection can be authorized or banned in absolute or relative terms. And, as such, has made way for five variations across the political landscape: 1) indefinite or unlimited reelection; 2) immediate reelection once and then ’open’ (i.e. the possibility of having the chance to run after a certain period of time); 3) immediate reelection once only and ‘closed’ (i.e. impossible to become a candidate again); banning immediate reelection and authorization of alternate reelection under the open and closed methods; and 5) complete banning of reelection (a person can never again be a candidate).
Fourteen of the 18 countries in the region currently authorize reelection under a variety of methods. Venezuela and now Nicaragua are the only two countries where indefinite reelection is permitted. In five countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador) consecutive reelection is authorized, but not indefinitely (only one reelection is allowed). In seven other cases, reelection is possible only after at least one or two intervening terms (Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Uruguay). Only four countries forbid reelection (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay).
Consecutive or immediate reelection is a method that has in recent years favored the ruling party and/or president in office. Thirty-five years have gone by since the transitions to democracy started in the region, and all of the presidents who sought reelection got it, except for two: Ortega in Nicaragua in 1990, and Mejia in the Dominican Republic in 2004.
A Complex and contentious issue
To engage in a proper discussion about this, it is best to be specific about what we understand reelection to be. According to Dieter Nohlen, reelection is understood 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 reelection is a highly controversial issue. There is a never ending debate around the benefits or harm of reelection 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 reelection puts the political system at risk of a ‘democratic dictatorship’ and reinforces the trend towards the personal and hegemonic leadership, which is inherent to presidentialism. The champions of reelection, on the contrary, argue 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, by rewarding or punishing them, as the case may be.
Historically in Latin America, the discussion about presidential reelection centered around the concept of no reelection, but in recent years it is focused more on indefinite reelection. Advocates argue that as long as their own parties reaffirm their leadership positions and citizens vote for them one election after the next, indefinite reelection of the same person is not anti-democratic.
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 the personal and hegemonic leadership inherent to presidentialism and exposes the political system to the risk of a ‘democratic dictatorship’ or to a plain authoritarian system. This was made evident by the disastrous reelection experiences of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico (who was reelected seven times and ruled for 27 years) and by those of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Joaquin Balaguer in the Dominican Republic, among others.
Also, indefinite reelection usually infringes upon the principles of equality, equity, and integrity of the electoral contest since it provides the incumbent with an unfair advantage over other candidates. The electoral campaign in Venezuela in October 2012, in which Chavez was reelected, is a clear example of this occurring.
I agree with Mario Serrafero that ‘the combination of indefinite presidential reelection with an institutional system of strong presidentialism is not the best option, but the most certain threat to authentic validity of the rights of citizens, the balance of branches, and the stability of institutions.’
The conclusions of a recent seminar that International IDEA organized point out that, in many cases, presidential reelection in Latin America has been characterized more for being unfortunate than for being fortunate, since it has been exploited by some rulers who intended to remain in power indefinitely, and even permanently, either by themselves or through proxy.
There was also a consensus in the seminar that the risks associated with presidential reelection are usually directly related to the degree of an institution’s power. In the countries where institutions are strong, the adverse risks are low, and vice versa.
Strong institutions are characterized by both the existence of public powers independent from the Executive branch (particularly the judiciary) as well as a system of competitive and institutionalized political parties.
On the other hand, as shown by the comparative Latin American experience, in countries where institutions are weak, indefinite reelection (and even successive reelection) has served to concentrate political power with the Executive, damaging to a large extent the principle of the separation of powers and, above all, the independence of the different branches of government (both legal and political) which are there for checks and balances. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua are some examples of this trend.
Reelection trends in the region during the 2013-2016 electoral marathon
Between 2009-2012, all but one of the 18 countries in Latin America held presidential elections. In all of them, the presidents who sought reelection were successful. In 2013 an election marathon commenced that ends in 2016, (again with 17 of the 18 countries in the region voting to elect or reelect presidents). If history is any guide, Latin America will witness a new reelection wave.
The current political circumstances show four major trends, namely:
Incumbent presidents who sought or might seek indefinite reelection
This has been the case of Chavez in Venezuela (until his death early in 2013) and will most probably be of the same with Ortega in Nicaragua who, if he runs and wins the 2016 elections, would have four terms in office: three of them consecutive.
Incumbent presidents who might seek successive reelection
Ecuador’s Correa was elected in 2006, reelected under a new Constitution in 2009 and, again, in February 2013. This is also the case of Morales in Bolivia, elected in 2005, reelected in 2009, with constitutional amendment included, and who will seek his reelection in 2014. Roussef in Brazil has said that she will seek reelection in 2014. The same has been stated by Santos in Colombia.
Come back, time and time again…
As in the case of Bachelet in Chile, she was in office from 2006 - 2010 and will start a new (alternate) term on 11 March 2014. Same goes for Vasquez in Uruguay, who in 2005 took the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) to power and who now will seek a second term (also alternate) in the October 2014 presidential elections. Saca, who was President of El Salvador from 2004 - 2009, tried to return as the leader of the Movimiento Unidad (Unity Movement), which challenged the largest parties in his country ARENA (to which he formerly belonged) and the FMLN. Even though Saca did not make it to the second round, 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) –if they come out of their current lawsuits unscathed —will be tempted to seek alternate reelection in 2016.
Latin American history is full of episodes of wives succeeding their president husbands: such as Maria Estela Martinez-Perón in Argentina in 1974 (a result of an early death), or because they were the heirs to the political leadership, like Mireya Moscoso in Panama. In some cases, like Violeta Barrios-Chamorro in Nicaragua, they came to power due to their own leadership and popularity. But, in recent years, we are witnessing a new phenomenon: spousal reelection. Nestor Kirchner set this trend in 2007 when his wife Cristina was elected.
In Peru, President Humala’s wife Nadine Heredia is gathering strength - even though for her election to happen, a new interpretation of electoral regulations would be required. In Central America, after the failure in Guatemala of Sandra Torres (who even divorced ex-president Colom to get around constitutional obstacles) Xiomara Castro, the wife of President Zelaya of Honduras (2006-09), was the candidate of the leftist LIBRE party in the November 2013 elections coming in second place.
In these 35 years of democratic development, Latin America went from being (at the onset of the Third Democratic Wave) a region of strong anti-reelection sentiment to one with a clear tendency in favour of reelection.
The current reelection 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 this region which is characterized by institutional weakness, a growing personalization of politics, party crises, and hyper-presidentialism.
In these three and a half decades of democratic life in the region, we have witnessed presidents who manipulated and reformed constitutions for their own benefit and others who, in turn, 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 –or even indefinite—reelection (Chavez and Ortega). On the other hand, those in the second group (Bachelet, Lagos, Lula, and Vasquez, among others) in spite of their high popularity at the end of their terms, did not attempt to force the institutional order and respected the Constitution.
To summarize: The strengthening and consolidation of our still fragile democracies do not depend on charismatic leaders. Ex-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 opinion, 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. With democratic leadership and a solid civic culture.
As Mexican historian Enrique Krauze has well pointed out: ‘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.’