Updated 1 year, 7 months ago

The Duracell leaders

FOR many Brazilians Fernando Collor is a half-remembered figure from a darker past. He achieved notoriety as the president who was impeached for corruption in 1992. Despite his impeachment, Mr Collor has been a senator since 2007. This month he was back in the headlines: federal police raided his home in Brasília, seizing a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and a Porsche, as part of their probe into allegations that some 50 serving politicians received corrupt payments from Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company. He denies the allegations against him.

“All political careers end in failure,” observed Enoch Powell, a British politician. But in Latin America, some seem never to end at all. Take José Sarney, Mr Collor’s predecessor as Brazil’s president, who went on to spend 24 years as a senator, eight of them as the chamber’s president. He stepped down in January, aged 84, but still exercises influence through his son, who is a federal deputy.

Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president in 2002-10, now leads the opposition to his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, from a seat in the Senate. In Chile Ricardo Lagos, a statesmanlike former president, is said to be thinking of running for the job again in 2017, when he will be 79. One of the three main putative candidates in Peru’s presidential election next year is Alan García, who has twice held the job before. Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay’s president, held that job from 2005 to 2010.

Mexico was once an exception. In its seven decades of one-party rule, it found a way to enforce political renewal: the president was omnipotent for six years and then an official nobody. That has begun to change. Carlos Salinas, a former president, is an occasional adviser to the current one, Enrique Peña Nieto. Margarita Zavala, the wife of Felipe Calderón, Mr Peña’s predecessor, is running for the presidency in 2018.

Some former presidents wisely play the role of elder statesman, exercising discreet influence without trying to return to power. That applies to Colombia’s César Gaviria (and hitherto to Mr Lagos). It goes, too, for Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He remains, at 84, the unofficial leader of the opposition partly because of the lack of younger pretenders. But his towering presence may have made renewal of his Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) harder. As for his chief foe, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, he has sometimes seemed to act as a back-seat driver for Dilma Rousseff, the current president, though their relations are now strained. Prosecutors are investigating Lula, in his case for influence-peddling on behalf of construction companies, claims which he vehemently denies.

Why do so many former presidents prefer the role of elderly practitioner to elder statesman? One factor is rising life expectancy and better health: 80 is the new 60. Latin Americans tend to respect their elders. The tradition of the caudillo and the cult of the leader survive. Some politicians cling to office to gain legal immunity. Weak party systems in some countries give greater prominence to individuals. And name recognition helps a lot in politics—just ask the Clintons or the Bushes.

Only four Latin American countries—Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay—bar presidents from serving more than one term. (Honduras’s president now wants an constitutional amendment to allow a second consecutive term.)

To keep in the public eye, front-rank Brazilian politicians often accept jobs in lower tiers of government. The PSDB’s José Serra was both governor and mayor of São Paulo between two failed presidential bids. But in Brazil’s genuinely federal polity such jobs have real clout.

The political activism of former presidents means that “younger generations are growing old before they can get a shot at running the country”, wrote Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist, this month in the Buenos Aires Herald, a newspaper. “New ideas, practices and technologies that are rapidly embraced by the rest of society find it difficult to make their way into the political arena.” The disrepute into which politics has fallen may also be deterring promising potential leaders from entering the field.

Elder statesmen are a valuable political resource. Youth is in itself no guarantee of political acumen. Mr García’s first term in Peru, starting in 1985 when he was 36, was a hyperinflationary disaster. The difficulties of Mr Peña, who became president at 46 and has failed to respond adequately to public disgust with crime and corruption, owe something to inexperience. It would be ageist to deny the right of sprightly pensioners to continue to seek high office. But it is not necessarily wise to vote for them. Politicians, like batteries, eventually go flat.

the Economist |