As Latin America advances onto the global stage, it is breaking from one of the main trends which distinguishes its transition to democracy. Several countries’ constitutions have been modified to stand or extend presidential reelections. Unlike the United States, presidential reelections in Latin America are a relatively new theme. In fact, they were originally banned to prevent the warlordism and socio-political inequality suffered during the decades of Cold War-era dictatorships known as Operation Condor. While the ban ensured a greater alternation of power, more governments believe this concern is no longer relevant. Or is it?
Much of Latin America’s political future culminates into a fundamental question. Can the prospect of elongated authority override the preservation of democracy, specifically in this developing region with a history of political instability? The arguments expressed by critics and proponents of presidential reelection may shed light on the answer.
Critics argue that the re-election system risks cultivating “democratic dictatorships.” Specifically, they are concerned that it reinforces hegemonic leadership inherent to hyper-presidentialism - where elected leaders override and control laws to remain in office. One example is the Venezuelan opposition’s view on late President Hugo Chavez’s 2009 constitutional amendment which enabled infinite reelections of a same leader. While Bolivarian supporters felt empowered by keeping their “man of the people” in office, the enthusiasm was not universal. The local right-wing felt that their own privilege to choose their country’s political future was at risk, particularly of remaining in the hands of those who did not support their less populous way of life. Moreover, many question the legitimacy and incorruptibility of such reelections. This concern was tested during the 2013 presidential elections when current president and Chavista successor Nicolas Maduro tightly beat Western-backed Henrique Capriles.
One term countries, however are exempt from such crises. Mexico and Panama ban presidential reelection altogether, whereas states such as Uruguay play a more compromising card. Here, heads of state are permitted a single five-year term. They then wait another five years before running for office again (i.e.: Tabare Vasquez in 2005-2010 and 2015-). Colombia upheld Mexico and Panama’s austerity until 2006 when the Alvaro Uribe administration amended the constitution to permit a second term. Uribe later attempted to legalize a third term, but failed. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos reversed to the single term law only this month. A curiosity of this move was that it occurred during his second term. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are among the other countries upholding a one term system.
In the words of Brazilian ex-President Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva who stepped down after a third-term prospect, “When a political leader begins to think that he is essential and cannot be replaced is when a small dictatorship begins.” 19th century South American Liberator Simon Bolivar similarly warned that “the continuity of authority in the same individual frequently brings end to democratic governments.” Therefore, it is ironic that many of Lula da Silva and Bolivar’s admirers are proponents of reelection for two - or more - terms.
Proponents of presidential reelection, on the other hand, argue that reelection permits a more “democratic” approach. It enables citizens to freely select their jefe del estado, as in Argentina’s reelection of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The people are hence able to reward him or her with more terms, or not. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela are among countries upholding this system.
“Such an amendment (of presidential reelection) does not diminish rights, but increases them,” Ecuadorian economist and President Rafael Correa claims in his second term, “He who believes in the rotation (of power) can vote for the changeover. But those who believe in continuity can also vote their way, too.”
Current Latin American law clearly favors re-election: more than two thirds of the countries in the region permit it. However, few studies have highlighted what appears to be one of the most significant and controversial trends: the increasingly frequent introduction of consecutive and indefinite reelections for Executive power.
Before Chavez in 2009, the very first cases took place in Argentina and Brazil during the periods of Carlos Menem and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, respectively. Subsequently, several countries attempted similar reforms (Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, Venezuela, all with varying results). Even some of these states (Ortega’s Nicaragua, Chavez’s Venezuela, Fujimori’s Peru) interpreted or amended their constitutions to permit reelection beyond the provisions of initial reform and introduced more lax schemes.
In other countries, attempts to further elongate a leader’s time in office (i.e.: for a third term) were effectively blocked (Argentina’s Menem and Colombia’s Uribe). The blocks were mainly enforced by political parties, the intervention of judicial factors and popular demonstrations. All three factors helped ban Uribe from the Executive office permanently. There have even been those countries where the intentions of a sitting president to change the constitution to allow for reelection spawned coup d’états (Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya).
In conclusion, whether Latin American critics or proponents of presidential reelection are more righteous than the other, one reality is clear. Presidential reelections have been gaining ground across the region. As countries such as Colombia vote down the ability of reelection and others as Bolivia and Ecuador toy with the notion of Venezuela-styled indefinite reelections, Latin America’s democratic future stands at a cross roads.