Thursday, July 19, 2007

Term limits

Seeing the news about a possible effort in Bolivia to remove presidential term limits made me think about the recent politics of presidential terms in Latin America. At the moment I see four trends.

First, change the constitution to allow unlimited re-election. Hugo Chávez is going for it and now apparently so might Evo Morales.

Second, change the constitution to allow for limited re-election (whether consecutive or not) as in Colombia and Costa Rica and, not so long ago, Peru (under Fujimori), Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Third, don’t change the constitution but keep family members running, a la Argentina (and even the United States).

Fourth, go the opposite direction and reduce the presidential term, a much rarer bird. Chile recently went from six to four years.

John Carey* has argued that an important factor for democracy is how the changes were made. Were they the result of negotiations between the president and political opponents, or were they done through plebiscite or other measure that required no negotiation or concession?

This makes sense to me, but we should also think about how much the type of change affects democracy. Each of the four will have different impacts on the relationship with the opposition, control over state resources, consolidation of personal political power, etc.

*John Carey, “The Reelection Debate in Latin America.” Latin American Politics and Society 45, 1 (Spring 2003): 119-133.


boz 9:03 PM  

There's discussion that Putin may take a few years off, install a president who will allow him to control everything from the background, and come back and run for the following term. You could argue it's a variation on #3, but not family.

I can't think of a current situation in Latin America that is like that, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility in the near future.

Miguel Centellas 8:33 AM  

There is actually a long history of family members following their incumbent relatives. While he wasn't elected, Gilmar Gutierrez (in Ecuador's 2006 presidential election) was seen as a stand-in for his brother, Lucio (who left the presidency April 2005). Not quite a perfect example. Though Ecuador also has a long history of familial politics.

Greg Weeks 10:12 AM  

Boz, I can't think of any other similar situation, perhaps in part because Russia is less democratic than most of Latin America.

Miguel, your comment made me think that the opposite analysis would also be interesting--why have efforts at reelection failed?

Miguel Centellas 3:15 PM  

I'd have to look at the numbers to be sure (no time now), but I think re-election has succeeded more often than not in Latin America. Where re-election was allowed. I think the regionwide opposition to re-election (in abstract) was mostly due to the fear of too-powerful presidents. "No re-election!" was, after all, the rallying cry of the Mexican Revolution (at least at first).

But since re-election was allowed (only a recent trend, as you point out), several presidents were re-elected: Lula, Menem, Fujimori, Chavez, and Uribe.

Greg Weeks 3:26 PM  

Re-election was defeated in Panama, but that is only case I know off the top of my head.

Tambopaxi 9:55 PM  


There have been several cases of, "Play that tune again, Sam", in Ecuador, with several Presidents (notably Gabriel Garcia Moreno and Eloy Alfaro, coming back several times. The record holder here, though, is Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra, who was legitimately elected on five different occasions in the 20th century, although he was deposed two or three times by the military.

Miguel C's comment on Gilmar Gutierrez on a stand-in is correct, although in fairness to the Gutierrez brothers, their party was not the only one to have a candidate who was seen as a front man for someone else.

Finally, I think Miguel's comment about Mexican aversion to reelection reflects thinking in many other countries down here, this is fear of long term power holders who turn into tyrants (why do the initials Fidel Castro occur to me as I write this?).

Greg Weeks 7:14 AM  

Though the issue is not re-election per se, but rather constitutional-legal changes that allow re-election where before it was not allowed.

Tambopaxi 7:31 AM  

Right, Greg, but those constitutional changes (that is, those are being contemplated or have been done recently should be seen in historical context. Reelection arrangements are not new to LA Constitutions but they've been dropped in many countries (only to make a comeback in recent times), because of negative experiences in places like Ecuador and elsewhere. Thinking about it, we took a similar stance in our own Constitution after FDR, most likely for the same reason, fear or suspicion of long term power holders - at least in the Executive branch; our Congress full of ageing incumbents really should be subjected to the same sorts of limits in my view...

boz 8:09 AM  

Re-election was defeated in Panama, but that is only case I know off the top of my head.

One of the issues here is that when reelection is defeated, it often doesn't go far enough to become a major debate so it's difficult to identify. Granting reelection is a lot easier to remember. Also, how do you count defeating reelection? Is one politician proposes it and it gets shut down by the political process? If the president proposes it? If it goes to a vote in Congress or referendum?

Additional reelection has come up from pro-Uribe members of Congress at least twice in the last year in Colombia, but has been shut down in the public political debate.

I'm sure at some point in the last 15 years some politicians have proposed reelection in Mexico, Chile and other countries but the proposals never received a full Congressional vote or referendum because they were shut down previous to that.

boz 8:09 AM  

Also, as another relevant example, I think the 1991 Colombian constitutional reform banned all presidential reelections (consecutive reelection had been banned by the previous constitution).

Greg Weeks 8:17 AM  

I think the most useful definition is that re-election went up for a vote (of some sort) and was defeated.

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