Latin leftists reshape democracy
Bolivians vote Sunday on the fate of President Evo Morales and other top officials.
(Page 2 of 2)
Most of the referendums in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia have been linked directly or indirectly to new constitutions that leaders in each country are trying to create.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
From a historic perspective, such constitutional reform is nothing new. Of the 800-some charters written worldwide since 1789, nearly half have come from this region, says Mr. Elkins, according to his own count.
Just a tool to consolidate power?
Chávez critics, however, say that he is just out to consolidate his own power. During a referendum attempt in December – which he lost – he proposed 69 new amendments to the nation's Constitution, which had most recently been overhauled in 1999.
It would have, among many things, abolished term limits for presidents.
A modified Constitution, via referendum vote, was the chosen route in Venezuela, though many of the amendments could have been passed through other mechanisms – likely because it's the fastest route.
"Referendums are used in these countries as an instrument of rapid refounding of nations," says Elsa Cardozo, an international relations professor at Metropolitan University in Caracas, Venezuela. "Institutions take a long time."
But referendums, particularly when used for constitutional reform, are also implemented because leaders have little choice.
The "outsider" status of Chávez, Morales, and Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa, helped these leaders get elected, but can pose a problem when it comes time to govern.
In Ecuador, public distrust in political parties helped Mr. Correa coast to victory in 2006 as an outsider and proponent of change. But he took office without allies in Congress.
In such cases, coalition-building is not always feasible.
Instead, Correa moved toward a new Constitution, which was approved by a Constituent Assembly last month.
The charter needs to be approved in a referendum at the end of September.
Using the referendum is becoming more popular in the region, particularly among neopopulists who utilize the media to reach the masses.
But the trend has some drawbacks, observers say.
Drawbacks of the referendum trend
Going directly to the people can eliminate representation of the people – one of democracy's checks-and-balances.
"Repeated votes in favor of the president, whether they are elections for public office or referenda on elements of his reform program, provide a president with a constantly refreshed mandate that can lead him to conclude he is authorized to implement his entire agenda without concessions to the opposition," says Shelley McConnell, visiting assistant professor of government at Hamilton College in New York. "Particularly where the president is a neopopulist, this can invite a kind of tyranny of the voting majority."
When institutions are strong, however, many believe referendums can serve to strengthen democracy.
"It's about returning to the people the ability to reject or approve laws," says Margarita Lopez Maya, a history professor at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "The referendum is a complement to the whole of institutions to improve the quality of democracy, not to substitute it."
• Jose Orozco contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.