Slaves of the people or the institutions

Recently, Bolivian President Evo Morales declared himself a “slave of the people” and said he is backing the proposed constitutional reform that would enable him to seek re-election in 2019 if that’s what the citizens want. Last Saturday, September 26, the Legislative Assembly partially amended the Constitution (by a two-thirds majority), authorizing Morales to run for the presidency once again in 2019. February 21, 2016 is set as the date of the popular referendum to validate or reject the amendment.

This amendment allows presidential re-election for two consecutive terms, rather than just one re-election, as dictated by the previous constitutional provision. The change takes into account the current presidential term (2015-2020) and clarifies that Evo and his vice president are authorized to run only one more time, that is, to seek re-election only for the 2020 to 2025 period. The opposition immediately denounced the amendment as “tailoring the law to the needs of one person”.

It should be noted that Morales and García ran and won in the 2005, 2009, and 2014 elections. The current term is the second consecutive term under the new Bolivian Constitution (adopted in 2009) and the third since they were first elected, in 2005. If he wins the elections scheduled for 2019, Evo would become one of the leaders to hold power the longest in Bolivia and throughout Latin America.

Re-election fever

This constitutional amendment, recently adopted in Bolivia, is not an isolated event. Rather, it fits within a regional trend toward re-election that has been gaining ground in Latin America over the past 20 years.

While the region ushered in democracy in the late 1970s and many clearly opposing re-election, this situation changed dramatically a few years later. The first wave of reforms favorable to immediate or consecutive re-election came in the first half of the 1990s with the impetus of Alberto Fujimori in Peru (1993), Carlos Menem in Argentina (1994), and Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil (1997). From then on, several more presidents introduced reforms during their administrations to keep themselves in power. A second wave of reforms, led by Hugo Chávez, took place in the middle of the last decade, with a view to moving from immediate re-election to indefinite re-election. Chávez secured this objective via referendum in 2009.

Chávez’s example was reproduced by Daniel Ortega in 2014 in Nicaragua (the second country to allow indefinite re-election). Currently one more president, Rafael Correa (Ecuador), is promoting a reform along similar lines.

Recent reforms and trends

The years 2014 and 2015 have been full of news a about re-election. In the last 20 years the Dominican Republic has led in the number of re-election related reforms, with four from 1994 to 2015. The most recent, in July 2015, has re-established immediate re-election, enabling President Danilo Medina to run once again in May 2016 elections to aspire to a second consecutive term.

Two more countries have moved in what some might call extreme directions in 2014 and 2015. Nicaragua eliminated any impediment to re-election from the constitution in January of 2014, while Colombia moved in the opposite direction when they approved a reform prohibiting presidential re-election, in June 2015, a decade after re-election was first adopted.

On April 22, 2015, the Honduran Supreme Court declared the articles of the constitution that prohibited presidential re-election inapplicable. These articles also punished public officials and any other citizen who proposed or supported amending them, as these articles were considered not subject to reform. In 2009 the effort to call a National Constitutional Assembly after a non-binding consultation to amend the constitution and do away with this provision, led to the coup d’état that removed former President Zelaya from office.

In Brazil, the Chamber of Deputies cast an initial vote in 2015 in favor of eliminating re-elections, which is now being examined in the Senate. Most analysts consider it likely that the senate will adopt a similar position as the lower house, i.e. in favor of doing away with re-election.

Finally, one should note the cases of Ecuador and Bolivia, countries in which efforts are under way to amend the constitutions in relation to elections, in the terms analyzed above.

As a result of the reforms of the last few years, at this time 14 of the 18 countries in the region allow re-election, albeit with different specific rules. Venezuela (since 2009) and Nicaragua (since 2014) are the only countries so far that allow indefinite re-election. In five countries – Argentine, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic – consecutive re-election is allowed, but not indefinitely (only one re-election is permitted). Nonetheless, presidents who re-founded the institutional order through constitutional assemblies have been able to benefit from a third term, leaving out the first term on the argument that it pre-dated the constitutional reforms (Bolivia and Ecuador). To these five countries we should added the above-mentioned case of Honduras.

In six other countries one can return to the presidency after an interval of one or two presidential terms. These are Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay. As we have observed, only four countries have an absolute prohibition on any type of re-election, namely Mexico, Guatemala, Paraguay, and, since last July, Colombia.

My opinion

This re-election fever is bad news for a region like ours given the institutional weaknesses, the crisis of the political parties, the growing personalization of politics, and, in several countries, hyper-presidentialism.

Something is very wrong when a president of a democracy considers himself or herself as indispensable as to change the constitution in order to stay in power. As Pope Francis noted recently; “a good leader is one who is capable of bringing up other leaders. If a leader wants to lead alone, he is a tyrant. True leadership is fruitful.”

“The leaders of today will not be here tomorrow. If they do not plant the seed of leadership in others, they are worthless. They are dictators,” he concluded.

I agree with Pope Francis. The health of a democracy depends essentially on its ability to limit the power of those in government so they cannot reshape the law to fit their personal ambitions. In other words, democracy in Latin America does not need leaders who are slaves of the people, but who are slaves to the law and the institutions.

This piece was originally published by International IDEA.