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Knowing when to leave in Latin America

Leaders who circumvent term limits undermine the region's democratic progress.

October 26, 2009

As Latin America's military dictatorships fell one by one in the late 20th century, incipient democracies across the region sought to stamp out caudillo culture with constitutions that limited their newly elected leaders to one term in office. No more strongmen ruling in perpetuity. So powerful was the no-reelection sentiment that the Honduran Constitution even included a clause saying that its single, four-year presidential term limit could not be amended in the future.

But as democracies took root and civilian governments tried to implement ambitious economic and political reforms, they began to feel constrained by term limits. Soon, elected leaders from right to left sought to extend their mandates. Driven by ego and arrogance as well as ideology, some pursued the changes legitimately through the legislature. At least that was the case when the leaders of Peru, Argentina and Brazil sought second terms in the 1990s.

Problems arose, however, when Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and Argentine President Carlos Menem still weren't satisfied and, despite charges of corruption, sought third terms. Other leaders went even further, using and abusing the tools of democracy to eliminate term limits altogether. That would include Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who lost one referendum to extend his term before winning passage of a second in February, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose allies on the Supreme Court lifted a ban on reelection last week, raising fears that Nicaragua might return to the kind of entrenched power that Ortega took up arms to defeat in 1979.

Just how long is too long for a president to serve? It's up to each nation to decide for itself, of course, and the answers vary widely across Latin America. Mexico, which fought a bloody revolution to end the 35-year dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz, has since limited its leader to a single six-year term. El Salvador has a five-year term without reelection; Chile has one four-year term. Like Brazil and Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador changed their constitutions to allow for two four-year terms. Whether four years or eight, all of these options seem reasonable.

But while we don't believe in one-size-fits-all democracy, we do believe in alternating governments. The longer a single party stays in power, the more likely it is to take control of the courts, electoral institutions and the national purse strings, making it harder for opposition parties to compete. This is why the move to lift term limits has been so emotional in the region, leading to everything from a fistfight among legislators in Argentina when Menem sought to change the law in 1993 to a civilian-military coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya over the issue in June.

Even the most popular leaders make mistakes, run out of ideas and curb appeal, and eventually lose fair elections. But those who manage to remain popular longer than usual also should leave office on time, or they risk undermining the political system.

In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe has been toying with a national referendum that would permit him to seek a third term in 2010, an election he would likely win. Most Colombians believe the conservative leader has successfully fought back against leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers, but 12 years is still too long for the good of democracy. He would do better to leave while he is still a hero to his supporters, and give others a chance.

The same is true for Chavez, Venezuela's leftist leader, who has vowed to stay in office for years to come to complete what he calls his Bolivarian Revolution on behalf of the poor. Besides holding the presidency, he controls the legislature and courts, wields influence over the media and doesn't tolerate dissent.

This is exactly what the political elites in Honduras feared. Zelaya ignored the will of Congress and the Supreme Court in pursuing a referendum on whether Hondurans favored a special assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. He hadn't specifically raised the question of term limits, and likely couldn't have made a change before the end of his own presidency, although many speculated that this was what he intended to do. But Zelaya was close to Chavez, and his opponents took the preemptive step of ousting him, a move deemed illegal by the international community.

Ortega took a new approach to extending his rule in Nicaragua last week. He circumvented the National Assembly, which his Sandinista party does not control, and a national vote, which he might have lost. Instead, he took his petition to lift a ban on consecutive terms to six pro-Sandinista judges who make up the constitutional branch of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court. They agreed with his argument that the prohibition on a second term violated his rights. His critics accuse him of using the levers of government to perpetuate his own power.

A president should lead the government, not use it to his own ends. Latin America suffered long and fought hard to throw off its repressive regimes. Too much power should not be concentrated in the hands of one leader, regardless of ideology, or any leader who overstays his welcome. Latin Americans have wonderful role models in Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who are sticking to their term limits despite their popularity. The others should look admiringly at this example and follow suit.

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