• A version of this post ran on the author's Nicaragua Dispatch blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, fresh into his third consecutive term in the presidency, appears to be coming down with a chronic case of “reelection fever” — something that affects a growing number of Latin American leaders.
Speaking to a group at the Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday evening, the Ecuadorian leader said he’s mustering his strength to fight off the temptation of a never-ending presidency, but symptomatic sniffles suggest his defenses are weakening.
“In 2017, I want to retire from the presidency and from politics, but it’s not always possible to do what [you] want,” he said coyly. In Ecuador, Correa explained, “the people” are in power. And “the people” love him. With an 80 percent approval rating, the people might press Correa to run for a fourth term in office.
Ecuador’s constitution prevents Correa from seeking reelection in 2017, but rarely is the law a barrier to personal ambition in weak institutional democracies — especially in Latin America.
“Circumstances change,” Correa said with a winsome smile. “We are a sovereign nation, not a colony.”
A cooling toward presidents-for-life
Reelection in Latin America has been associated with the most abusive dictatorships of the 20th century. When democracy finally took root in the second half of the last century, most countries scrubbed reelection from their constitutions to prevent a repeat of the past.
Today, 16 Latin American countries allow some type of reelection, while only five — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Paraguay — ban election altogether. In most cases reelection is limited to non-consecutive terms or two consecutive terms, while Ecuador allows the president to run for three consecutive terms. In 1990, the Dominican Republic was the only democracy in the region that still allowed presidential reelection, according to Latin America expert Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University.
But the nouveau authoritarian regimes of Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Carlos Menem in Argentina changed their countries’ constitutions to allow for reelection in the mid 1990s, starting a new wave of reforms. They were followed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, who won reelection in 2004 but was blocked from seeking a third term by a 2010 constitutional court ruling.
Only Nicaragua and Venezuela allow unlimited reelection, creating the possibility of president-for-life.
And only in Nicaragua has reelection fever metastasized to the point where even the most corrupt and inept public officials are reelected on all levels of government, denying the country any semblance of democratic accountability or institutional credibility. The Sandinista-dominated congress this week reelected almost all of the 50-plus de facto magistrates, prosecutors, judges and lesser apparatchiks, while thoughtfully replacing those who died in the office — the fastest way out.
The ALBA brand of indefinite reelection institutionalized by Nicaragua and Venezuela — a model for perpetual power pondered by allies Ecuador and Bolivia — is unprecedented in democratic Latin America, Levitsky says.
“Only under the dictatorships of the past — the days of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico, and the Somozas in Nicaragua — were presidents reelected for life,” Levitsky told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Under democracy the demand in Latin America has always been to oppose indefinite reelection, because of the dictatorships of the past.”
That’s why other Latin American countries have been more careful about implementing reelection, and respectful of established term limits.
“When Brazil’s Lula finished his second term in 2010, he had an 80 percent approval rating. But when he was asked about the possibility of seeking a third term, he said no because that would be bad for democratic institutions,” Levitsky says. “That’s a sign of how far Brazil’s democracy has come.”
Overall, the jury is still out about whether reelection in Latin America will strengthen governability or undermine democratic institutions, Levitsky says. But if anything is to be learned from the past it’s that unlimited reelection is a bad idea in countries with inchoate institutions, a one-party rule, and a questionable commitment to democracy.
“In Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador, reelection is associated with the same problems of 100 years ago,” Levitsky says.