Latin America’s great re-election debate

Endowed with extra revenues that enabled them to fulfil campaign promises, presidents tended to be popular. That is no longer the case.


If you need a pretext for a political climbdown in Latin America, they don’t come much better than a plea from the pope. That was the excuse that Horacio Cartes, Paraguay’s president, used to drop his plan to run for a second consecutive term in 2018, which required changing the constitution. He was inspired to desist, he wrote to the archbishop of Asunción this month, by Pope Francis’s call for peace and dialogue. An attempt to ram the change through congress had provoked a riot in which the parliament building was set on fire.

After ten days of hesitation, during which Mr Cartes’s Colorado Party failed to withdraw the amendment, on April 26th congress voted unanimously to reject it. But Paraguay’s decision will not quiet debate across Latin America about whether or not to allow presidential re-election.

When in the 1970s and 1980s Latin America emerged from a period of dictatorship, its politicians were keen to place limits on executive power. Most countries either barred presidents from seeking re-election, or allowed them to do so only after waiting out at least one term.

Since then, there has been a gathering trend in the region to relax term limits. Five countries, including Brazil and Argentina, now allow a second consecutive term, while seven allow non-consecutive re-election. In Venezuela Hugo Chávez won a referendum to abolish term limits altogether; Ecuador’s congress agreed to do so from 2021. In Nicaragua and in Honduras courts have abolished term limits by ruling that barring re-election violates constitutional freedoms—a questionable route to making such a fundamental change to the rules of democracy.

Those who favour re-election argue that it makes presidents more accountable, that it offers voters the chance of keeping a president if they so wish and that it offers political and thus economic stability. Yet the costs of relaxing term limits are becoming ever clearer. Most obviously, Venezuela and Nicaragua are now in effect dictatorships. Elsewhere, there are more subtle ill-effects from allowing even one chance to run for re-election.

The first is that in practice incumbents have an unfair advantage. Of the 23 who ran for re-election since the mid-1980s, only two (Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 1990 and Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic in 2004) lost. Incumbents may benefit from a preference for the devil you know. But weak checks and balances probably matter more. Presidents may abuse public resources and interfere with electoral authorities.

Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, two political scientists, looked at 125 elections in 18 Latin American countries between 1953 and 2012. They found that being an incumbent widened the advantage over the nearest rival by an average of 11.2% of the vote. They also found that a 1% increase in public spending in the election year expanded the margin of victory by 1.3 percentage points. That can make all the difference: Dilma Rousseff raised primary public spending (ie, before interest payments) in Brazil by 6% in real terms in 2014 and won an ill-fated second term by a margin of just 3.3 percentage points.

Former presidents who run again after an interval, as 38 did between 1998 and 2006, are less assured of victory. But they act as bed-blockers, preventing political renewal. That matters. Surveys find increasing voter disillusion with the political establishment in many countries.

Relaxing term limits coincided in part with the commodity boom, which brought faster economic growth to many Latin American countries. Endowed with extra revenues that enabled them to fulfil campaign promises, presidents tended to be popular. That is no longer the case. So Latin America may revert to its historical norm of weak presidents (and move back to tighter term limits). Latin American countries employ the unusual and awkward combination of a directly elected president and a legislature chosen by proportional representation. As a result, the president’s supporters often make up a minority in a multiparty congress. That has increased the risk that a president will be impeached—as eight, including Ms Rousseff, have been since 1992.

Yet as democracy takes root in most Latin American countries, presidents and opposition-dominated legislatures have often managed to get along. A bigger risk, as Juan Pablo Luna and Alberto Vergara, two other political scientists, point out, is that political parties become less good at channelling the demands of rapidly changing societies. Allowing re-election is likely to exacerbate that problem. Latin American countries should think long and hard before doing so.

The Economist | Bello

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