Latin America’s Constitutional Conundrum

By bogotapost June 26, 2015

Latin American Constitutional ReformAfter 200 years of independence, the continent still can’t decide whether re-electing presidents is a good idea. Mat Youkee investigates…

In Carlos Fuentes’ political novel, The Eagle’s Throne, a young pretender to the Mexican presidency travels to Veracruz to visit an ancient former president. “We have two golden rules in Mexican politics,” the old man tells him. “One is benign: no re-election. The other is more unforgiving: exile. The reason, however, is the same: all delinquents are recidivists, my young friend.”

Set in 2020, the novel revolves around a political cast vying to replace the incumbent as he enters the final year of his rule. Amongst them is another ex-president, hoping that a favourable interpretation of the constitution might permit his own return to power.

Fuentes’ book echoes Colombia’s recent “balance of power” reforms and the struggle between Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor-cum-nemesis, Álvaro Uribe. Colombia’s June 1 decision to end presidential re-election overturned a 2004 constitutional change overseen by Uribe that permitted his own re-election in 2006.

The inclusion of a line stating that “no citizen who has already served as president can be elected” puts an end any lingering possibility of a third term for either Santos or Uribe. Tellingly it was senators from Uribe’s Centro Democrático Party that registered the strongest opposition to the changes.

Simón Bolívar admirers on both sides of the argument can reach back for handy quotes from the Liberator. In 1819, he said, “Nothing is more perilous than to permit one citizen to retain power for an extended period”. Seven years later, presenting the constitution of Bolivia, he said that “a fixed point is needed about which leaders and citizens, men and affairs can revolve…For Bolivia, this point is the lifetime presidency.”

Single-term presidencies used to be the norm in Latin America. In Mexico the idea of ¡No reelecionismo! has been sacrosanct since Francisco Madero’s 1910 campaign that ended the 34-year rule of Porfirio Diaz. As countries returned to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s following years of military dictatorship, strict limits on terms were seen as the best way to prevent the concentration of power in one man. The caudillos of the past were seen as the biggest challenge to democratic politics.

However, starting with Peru’s Alberto Fujimori in 1993, the majority of South American nations rewrote their constitutions to permit consecutive re-election. Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia followed suit, with Uribe’s 2004 reforms making Colombia a relative late-comer.

Firstly, re-election makes the president more accountable to the electorate and rewards good performance. Secondly, it enforces a greater level of party discipline during the first term by removing the motivation for ministers to align themselves with the presumed successor. Thirdly, and most fundamentally, the restriction on term limits can also be seen to impede the democratic choice of the electorate who should, it could be argued, be free to vote for whoever they chose.

According to John Carey, Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, the latter argument was used in the 1990s by then Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in order to change the constitution. “The argument at the time was: democracy is strong here, we can afford to allow re-election,” says Carey. Cardoso justified running for a second term by saying it was necessary to oversee the continuation of economic reforms. Again there are parallels with Santos, who early on in his mandate claimed to be a one-term president, only to backtrack on this promise due to the necessity that he, personally, oversee the peace process.

By another trick of timing, a week prior to the Colombian reforms, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly passed a bill to ban the re-election of presidents, mayors and governors. The Brazilian bill will need to be approved by a second vote and then passed by congress before it can enter into law. Two major South American nations are re-introducing term limits: Is this a sign of a shifting tide in the Latin American re-election debate? In short, no. In April, Honduran courts paved the way for continuous presidential election and in June legislators in the Dominican Republic – a country previously dead-set against continuismo following the excesses of the Balaguer dictatorship – voted to allow re-election. Even Mexico has moved to allow mayors and governors to serve two terms.

“There’s really no clear pattern to the re-election debate in Latin America, it’s always been pretty random,” says Carey. “To some degree or another, constitutional changes are always linked to the incumbent president or one who has been recently deposed.”

In the case of Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity plummeted in the wake of a capsizing economy and a sprawling corruption scandal and yet she still has three and half years left to run. The move to ban re-election is the result of a personal feud between Rousseff and Eduardo Cunha, the chairman of the lower house according to Alejandro Chacoff, a Brazilian political risk analyst. “Cunha has tried to shame the Rouseff administration publicly on several occasions,” says Chacoff.  “In this case he surreptitiously passed a major reform in the house that mocks the government’s ongoing discussion of political reform.”

Constitutional changes are always accompanied by lofty rhetoric. “This is meant to prevent creating all-powerful men in Colombia,” Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo told local radio after the Colombia vote. Tatiana Cabello, spokeswoman for the Centro Democrático Party said, “We have always defended presidential re-election, because it rewards good rulers and punishes the bad ones.” But historical precedent suggests that Realpolitik, not principle, lies behind constitutional change.

Check out our full report on Colombia’s recent Balance of Power reforms to the Constitution here.

By Mat Youkee