Ban re-election


chavezporsiempreAs we enter the end of the commodities super-cycle, Latin America seems set to return to its regular trend – low growth mixed in with high social conflict. Venezuela, with its latest mayhem, may be at the spearhead of this. So now is the time to review the traditional views about what makes Latin America so … Latin American!

One of the arguments that keeps popping up is the issue of re-election. Practically all Latin American countries have re-election in one shape or another, but can we say that’s a good thing? This recent text by Daniel Zovatto of Brookings argues that, no, that the trend is worrisome.

The money quote:

“Historically in Latin America, the discussion about presidential reelection centered around the concept of no reelection, but in recent years it is focused more on indefinite reelection. Advocates argue that as long as their own parties reaffirm their leadership positions and citizens vote for them one election after the next, indefinite reelection of the same person is not anti-democratic.

In my opinion, this is true in a parliamentary system, but not in a presidential one, since in the latter indefinite reelection reinforces the trend towards the personal and hegemonic leadership inherent to presidentialism and exposes the political system to the risk of a ‘democratic dictatorship’ or to a plain authoritarian system. This was made evident by the disastrous reelection experiences of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico (who was reelected seven times and ruled for 27 years) and by those of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Joaquin Balaguer in the Dominican Republic, among others.

Also, indefinite reelection usually infringes upon the principles of equality, equity, and integrity of the electoral contest since it provides the incumbent with an unfair advantage over other candidates. The electoral campaign in Venezuela in October 2012, in which Chavez was reelected, is a clear example of this occurring.”

(HT: Lucía)

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      • how can we ban the modification of unmodifiable articles about the ban on reelection, it’s a never ending cycle, the problem is not reelection, the problem is the rottenness of institutions and the lack of democratic culture.
        It’s similar to that other post that claimed that the existence of a monarchy or a parliamentary system would have prevented chavism to get us where we are. I think that there is no good enough constitution that could prevent a perfect storm from forming, if the right conditions are presents, widespread unrest, corruption and an unescrupulous and charismatic leader he could just sweep aside the existent legislation.

        • I think it’s a combination of iron-clad legislation and strong, credible institutions that whose decisions are respected by large majorities of the population.

          That is, for example, and independent judiciary that has the balls to say no to reelection, and enough prestige for reelection promoters to accept it or be forced to accept it.

          An independent prosecutor general and ombudsman also help. Honduras is an example of a country that barely prevented majority rule from tearing apart the institutions.

          In our case, the 1998 CSJ and Congress were unable to prevent the fall of the Republic to the will of a popular man.

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  1. While immediate re-election, i.e. like in the U.S., might not work for Latin America, it should be worthwhile considering the benefits of the re-election system that ruled in Venezuela over “la Cuarta” (i.e. that the President had to step out of office at least for one presidential term or more). If a working democratic system can be established then wouldn’t this system also be beneficial (clearly with a limit to two terms, indefinite re-election is never an option)? Of course, I say democratic because without this specific trait than we would just just puppet in-between-terms presidents like Juan Vicente Gomez had.

    • No…

      Choosing CAP as candidate for re-election kept AD from renewing itself, and handing the reins to younger generations.

      Caldera’s obsession with running for president, also had a negative effect on COPEI, and his 1993 candidacy outside the party effectively killed COPEI.

      Re-election played a significant role in the wrecking of the two parties that made it possible to have a stable democracy after MPJ.

      If we allow re-election we risk democracy turning into gerontocracy.

      • I agree that re-election played an important role in destroying the AD-COPEI balance, nevertheless, I believe that the problem there was more on the political arena that we had, than on the institutions themselves. Re-election can be beneficial as long as the political arena allows for it to be.

        Whether or not re-election is beneficial or not for the parties themselves is not the issue at hand. AD and COPEI happened to fall just when Venezuela was going through a crisis that allowed Chavez to seize the moment. That does not mean that if we reinforce the values of democracies, such values would actually allow for the creation of a movement which would see the emergence of new parties with new faces if the public does not believe in the old parties. At the same time, if a President has proven that he possess high governance skills, why shouldn’t he be allowed to go for a second term if the situation calls for it?

        • No… No man is indispensable. Reelection makes politicians remain popular, so they can run again, lack of reelection frees them (although not completely, there would still be party pressure) to do what is necessary even if it is umpopular.

          Also, it makes it clearer that their role after being president is guiding younger generations and sharing some wisdom. Look at Colombias State Council, which convenes every time there’s a political crisis, or hard decisions have to be taken, or diplomatic strategy has to be set. Former presidents advise the serving president as a non-partisan body.

          The 1961 Constitution had it better with the lifelong Senators. It allowed former presidents to retire from politics on an acceptable income (like a pension), gave them some recognition, and also the possibility to join the senate in key debates or votes.

          I’d prefer a version of the 1961 Venezuelan Constitution with Hondurian provisions barring reelection.

  2. Ban indefinite reelection, not one reelection. Of course, it would also contribute if we lowered the presidential terms from 6 years to 4 years, then allow for just one reelection. It would be much better.

  3. What I find amazing is that people use the example of Europe to justify re-elections and those who oppose re-election always fail to mention the huge huge huge difference with Europe:

    re-election might be possible in a system of parliamentary democracy, which is a completely different type of fish than a presidential system.

    only in times of Roosevelt was there still re-election for presidents in an American country, although back then Roosevelt didn’t have the powers Maduro has: the US states had a lot of powers the president had no form of interfering with.
    So: every time anyone even mentions the re-election word, should remind everyone else that re-election in democracy is nowadays only possible in parliamentary systems
    where the head of state is GRILLED, GRILLED time after time.
    And the issue is this: a key element of democracy since the V century BEFORE Christ is
    the accountability factor. Real debates increase the possibility of accountability.

    • I agree. The debate around re-election or no re-election is not that relevant as long as there is no culture of the government being somehow held accountable to its citizens. Where clientelism acts as the main driving force behind gov’t policy, and a single man (or group) controls the money faucet, constitutionally imposed alternance does not in any way guarantee an inclusive political system, to put it in Why Nations Fail terms. Look at Russia.

        • Well, yes and no, and that’s the whole point! The russian constitution is supposed to prevent an individual from building up hegemony by forbiding third re-elections. Just as in our constitution from ’99. As we know, (proto-)tyrants, whether tropical or caucasian, don’t like term limits.

          And just as Juan Vicente Gómez did in his heyday, Putin found a solution to this checks-and-balances conundrum: letting a puppet (Medvedev) be elected for a single period, in order to officially take back the reins of the country a few years later, this time with a fresh “presidential re-election counter”. Wash, rinse, repeat. Net effect of the term limit: none.

    • I don’t think indefinite re-election is a good idea on any level. Not even parliament. Look at the way Berlusconi defenestrated the Italian institution thanks in great part to the fact that he could keep holding office indefinitely.

      The U.S. also has indefinite reelection in their legislative, mixed with some hardcore gerrymandering for good measure. The result? It’s virtually impossible to defeat an incumbent and both chambers are packed with walking fossils who couldn’t care less about the will of the people they’re supposed to represent.

      • I repeat: there is a lot of variety between parliamentary systems.
        Parliamentary systems are also more than elections. Any democracy is more than elections.
        I don’t know the details of the Italian system but one of the things that completely
        differs between Germany and Italy is the role of public media in Germany and Italy.
        And the German public TV, unlike the Italian one, does put a huge control on politics. It is part of the grilling. The clout Berlusconi had on the media in Italy would be impossible in Germany.

        Another huge difference the threshold. Germany requires parties to get at least 5% of vote to be in parliament. This is one of the things Germans decided to introduced in order to avoid what happened with the fragmented Weimarer Republik. This makes life easier. But again: this on its own is not a magic formula. In Russia there is a similar clause…but then again, Russia is not a parliamentary system but a pseudo-semi-presidential system…and Russia does not have the check and balances on media and Russia does not have a grilling of the head (or heads) of state as in Germany or Britain.

        So you really have to look at the whole thing.

        • Indeed, every system is unique, but I hold that indefinite re-election is a bad idea in all cases. It’s just too dangerous. Even if in some particular cases, like Germany, it has not yet been abused. I mean, what big advantage does it give the country? Why risk it?

          In the case of Berlusconi, his big thing was precisely that he was a media tycoon before becoming prime minister, which meant that once he got in office he had control over both the private and public media. How is that different in Germany? In Italy, they’re trying to pass a law on “conflict of interest” to prevent this kind of thing to ever happen again.

          • In Germany you have a very solid public TV system where public radio and TV channels are criticising all the time the ruling party or parties in the Bund – nationally – and in the regions. They really go after both State and opposition. It is not perfect, as LemmyCaution will say, but it is by far the best I have seen. There are all the time discussions in the public domain and in main private newspapers/magazines when people think that “yesterday” one interviewer was too nice to a politician.

            I actually have friends who are have very different political positions and yet watch a lot of the same general TV news, even if they might buy different newspapers (one more lefty or righty or whatever) and they also have the option for private TV news (which are less popular). The system is such that there are players from all parties and several national players (universities, churches and I don’t know what) who also have a say in recommending the director of the TV channels…which also is not elected based on political elections so that there is continuity and more independence.

            I am not a big TV watcher but I have watched TV from different countries and I have to say Germany offers some of the best general news and political programmes (like it is often the case that you see acting ministers actually debating with heads of very right or lefty parties, not just with one other party).

            I think it is fine if at least there can be one reelection.

        • It is not so clear to me that the issue is parliamentary system versus the alternatives. Mexico had the same ruling party for most of the 20th century with regular turnover in presidents. Canada, a parliamentary system, had a dominant Liberal party under the same prime minister for….a long time (otherwise known as the good old days). Isn’t the issue really the strength of the other institutional checks and Rodrigo’s point?

  4. The purpose of limiting reelection is all about preventing too much concentration of power in the president. But if the power is already concentrated in the president, very few will see the big deal in eliminating any reelection limitations. So, firstly, we need a system where the people feel like they are –and are– the bosses, and the president serves the people. Once that is established, the reelection issues fall into perspective and people won’t want to risk power loss by letting any president concentrate it in himself rather than in them.

  5. I think that is justified to have a double standard regarding the elections. Europeans can handle that, we can´t, it should be ban.

    • Read my comment. It’s not about Europeans.
      It is only possible within a parliamentarian system and it works the best in parliamentarian systems where the prime minister actually has to fight time after time
      and is grilled.
      Even within parliamentary systems, there are meaningful differences. Germany, for instance, has a more refined framework for interpellations and that does not require majority, something that is hardly possible in Spain. And that is one of the reasons why in Spain Rajoy can usually get away with being grilled but in Germany (and other countries) the prime minister will be questioned on may occasions. I have discussed this issue with Spanish friends and even they don’t get it and some who are not satisfied with the current Spanish system and much less with the PP still think that if the Parliament and Executive could become inefficient if too many questions are allowed.
      No, that is not the case, provided there are proper rules.

  6. Juan, really good post here, and I agree. The logic behind getting rid of presidential term limits is to guarantee that the head of state can be president for life. It’s only a matter of time before this develops into a permanent security states and/or particracies in order to safeguard Latin American “revolutions.”

  7. I tend to agree with the people here arguing for limited reelection. I do think there are benefits to allowing presidents to serve multiple terms. It’s difficult to enact an agenda in just four years and in a polarized society, opposition parties could be incentivized to attempt what the Republicans failed at from 2008-2012 where they attempt to completely block a president’s agenda in hopes of regaining power in four years knowing that the same president cannot run again. Allowing reelection at least forces opposition parties to consider a long game that involves compromise on some of the president’s agenda.

    I think perhaps a system with something like a 5 or 6 year first term with the possibility of a single 2 or 3 year second term could be an effective way of mitigating the excessive presidentialism as well as opposition obstructionism.

      • Say what?? How about more than 40 votes in the House of Representatives to “repeal” the Affordable Health Care Act? Just for openers.

    • Not necessarily.

      I think we would be better off if the political agenda were set as post-debate party consensus as opposed to the personal vision of the current party leader. That way if president from party X launches an initiative that ends in the next presidential term, the presidential candidate from party X to succeed would follow through with the plan as he would be operating under the same party consensus.

      I also think if you disallow reelection, and party X loses the election, the president from party Y might be inclined to follow through with the initiative, even if it gets modified, in order to cash in on the completion of the project.

      Bottom line, polarized partisan politics US Tea Party style is awful. An opposition that blocks initiatives for partisan gain, as opposed to good-faith disagreement does a tremendous disservice to the country. A government that bulldozes the opposition and refuses to compromise also does a tremendous disservice to the country. Checks, balances and debate rules should be set-up to strongly encourage cooperation between different parties. Parliamentary systems tend to beat presidential systems at this.

    • “I think perhaps a system with something like a 5 or 6 year first term with the possibility of a single 2 or 3 year second term”

      I would go for the 5/2 combination.

  8. Yet, I do find that banning re-election by design (or limiting it to one term) makes a LOT of sense. I think the proposal has a very valid point. The current regime aimed at perpetuating itself in power by ensuring that the new Constitution would allow : 1) perpetual reelections 2) extending the presidential term from 4 to 6 years. They did not count on the fact that people are…hm… mortal. We will sometime be faced with the need of undoing what was wrong in the first place. However, resolving the issue right now is of course not feasible and it is not high priority in the agenda.

  9. Juan, I could not be more in agreement with you. The indefinite re-election is bad for ANYBODY. Imagine one of our leaders gets the power…then he has the possibility of being re-elected forever. In a presidential system, there is no way that this cannot lead to an autocratic regime.

  10. I mean, look at this:

    Isn’t it ruddy marvelous?
    “Flog the bastard! Yeah”

    The German Bundestag is similar, albeit somewhat more civilised.

    • Amazing…wouldn’t it be wonderful to see Caplies challenge Maduro on live TV on the state of the economy and the murder rate, with Maduro having to respond in soundites, without a 3 hour speech? The negative of this however, is often this leads to soundbites ruling the day and people are very likely to believe things that are totally untrue economically (i.e. price controls are good, a much higher minimum wage is good, business/oil is bad, etc.). This is part of the reason Great Britain was not able to keep its place as the leader of the free world…

      • Britain lost its place as leader of the free world because it mortgaged itself to the US in order to defeat nazism. When the time came to create a world economy following World War II, the US imposed its criteria, knowing full well that it meant the end of British dominance.

        It had nothing to do with Question Period!

  11. More than 10 years as a head of state isn’t a good idea in a parliamentary system neither. Happened in Germany with Adenauer and Kohl. The end of their tenure clearly weren’t their best years. Though the years 3 to 8 are often the best years for mandates of heads of Government. There is definitively some training on the job involved. Thats why I find banning of immediate re-election for a second term like in Chile a bad idea.

    • But then what would you have suggested for Germany now? That Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen or someone like her had been the candidate for the CDU? That could look a bit like having two Popes, not? Wait…that could be a good position!

    • You mean head of government.

      Parliamentary systems can have the same head of state for ages (like Queen Elizabeth II in UK, King Juan Carlos I in Spain, etc)

  12. When General Ezequiel Zamora rose up in arms against the ‘Oligarcas’ of his day , he raised three fundamental demands as justification for his uprising . One of them being: the banning of any kind of Reelection . We have such poor historical memory in this country , that a century and a half after his death, those who hypochritically purport to be passionately inspired by his ideals, have totally forgotten what they were and have brought back the possibility of indefinite reelection for any elected public official. !!

    In a country such as Venezuela, with weak institutions , where Caudillo worship is rife , and people in power become so totally inebriated with its narcicistic rewards , allowing for indefinite reelections is pure folly .

    The essential problem however , as pointed out by some of our fellow bloggers , is our penchant for electing to public office, hubristic figures which near absolute hold on power makes it easy for them to scape any form of accountability, whatever gross missdeeds or blunders they incurr in.

    Lets not forget Fukuyamas dictum that govt accountability together with strong competent govt and the rule of law are the three pillars on which modern States stand . If we ever want Venezuela to become a modern state this is one issue which needs attention.

    Lets think a bit how we can come up with an institutional arrangement which makes accountability an essential part of political life , Parlaimentarism is one way . The old spanish colonial system subjected all outgoing authorities to a ‘Juicio de Residencia’ which critically examined all they did during their time in office. The ancient greeks made it mandatory for people who had proposed a law to have the laws consequences evaluated one year after their ennactment, and if the law was found to have been detrimental to the Polis, those people were subject to political or criminal sactions including ostracism !!

    There are many ideas which can be incorporated into institutional reforms to make accountability work as a check on public figures abuse or overeach in the exercise of their faculties.

  13. Galán mata papel.

    A piece of paper alone can’t hold the people’s will from turning into mob rule. You need institutions strong enough to repel people’s push and remain legitimate before people’s eyes.

    Colombia drafted a constitution in 1991 and then came Uribe. His third term largely failed because he had a difficult relation with the supreme court. But if he hadn’t antagonized those magistrates (with the chuzadas and other shenanigans) he could be president today, with colombians wondering whether to allow a fourth term.

    Honduras drafted a pretty damn clear constitution, when it came to reelection. It has unmodifiable articles (artículos pétreos). But Venezuelan Petrodólares + Zelaya almost did away with those iron clad provisions, generating one of the biggest political-diplomatic crisis in Latinamerica.

    I don’t think you can beat the Hondurian constitution on this matter:

    Article 4

    “[…] La alternabilidad en el ejercicio de la Presidencia de la República es obligatoria. La infracción de ésta norma constituye delito de traición a la patria”.”

    “[…] Rotation in the exercise of the Presidency of the Republic is mandatory. Infringement of this norm constitutes high treason.”

    Article 239

    “El ciudadano que haya desempeñado la titularidad del Poder Ejecutivo no podrá ser Presidente o Designado. El que quebrante ésta disposición o proponga su reforma, así como aquellos que lo apoyen directa o indirectamente, cesarán de inmediato en el desempeño de sus respectivos cargos y quedarán inhabilitados por diez (10) años para el ejercicio de toda función pública.”

    “Any citizen that has held the Presidential office before won’t be eligible for President or Designate. Whoever breaks this disposition or proposes to reform it, including those who support it either directly or indirectly, will be immediatly stripped from office and be barred from office for 10 years.”

    Article 374

    “No podrán reformarse, en ningún caso, el artículo anterior, el presente artículo, los artículos constitucionales que se refieren a la forma de gobierno, al territorio nacional, al período presidencial, a la prohibición para ser nuevamente Presidente de la República, el ciudadano que lo haya desempeñado bajo cualquier título y el referente a quienes no pueden ser Presidente de la República por el periodo subsiguiente”.

    “In no way, will the previous article, this article, the articles that establish the governance model, the national territory, the presidential period, the prohibition to hold again the Presidency of the Republic, the citizen that has held it before and the one referring to those who can’t run for President of the Republic for the next term.”

    There are more unmodifiable articles that further limit who can run, including the previous Speaker of Congress, lots of ministers and officials.

  14. Second only to a complete purge of the powers and the Army, banning unlimited re-election is one of the most important things for any goverment that wants an actually democratic Venezuela.

    Also, I find that a parliament is a much better system than the Presidential one. Less concentration of power on the President and it reduces the thematic of two mega-parties absorbing all the rest, which allows actual discussions to happen more often.

      • Of course. It stills amazes me that, after 15 years of “revolution”, people still want a “strong military man” to get in charge like Perez Jiménez.

        But, the list to fix the country is a very long one.

        • MPJ left the image of a competent, effective , take charge administrator , regardless of his undemocratic credentials and neglect of certain areas such as education . The country was economically in good shape many emblematic public works were built and if you werent into politics you could lead a sattisfactory life.

          If Chavez had been as competent a public administrator as MPJ whilst retaining his own charismatic popular appeal , most people both in the Chavista ranks and in the opposition would probably feel comfortable having his regime in power .

          Love of political freedom is important but many people can tolerate its lack if from an economic perspective they can lead better lives . What really stung the East Germans was the poor quality of life in Communist germany as compared to the high quality of life in West germany . I suspect that the political freedom motive isnt as important as we like to think. !!

  15. “No re-election” is a good idea. But not just at the Presidential level. Mexico adopted “no re-election” in the wake of the Diaz regime and the Revolution. Then for 66 years they had effective one-party rule by the PRI, with massive corruption and blatant electoral fraud.

    The change of Presidents every six years meant nothing.

  16. What are the differences in the parliamentary system that make reelection ok?
    Can a parliamentary system be abused like our own parliament was in Venezuela?
    Wasn’t Hitler elected through a parliamentary system?

    • You didn’t read what some here said about parliamentary systems.
      There are many types.
      The rules used under the Weimar Republic were pretty different from the rules used
      under the new constitution Germany has had since 1949.
      There are lots of controls. You should read the German constitution of today. It is almost
      subtitled: “How to Avoid Getting a New Hitler in Power”

      • Thank you, Kepler. I did read it (the comment, not the German constitution). I’m trying to get people’s, like Nagel (or you), opinions on why they think the parliamentarian system is well suited for reelection as opposed to the presidential. I did imagine that if I go an study history and international constitutions eventually I may figure it out but I was hoping to avoid that.

        I’ve also read all your comments on how German TV grilles politicians and I saw the questions to the Prime Minister video (very impressive). But I think that is more a consequence of having a strong democratic system than the reason for it. It shows a strong democratic culture, but that in itself is no guarantee against popular political savant autocrat s like Chavez and Hitler were. For instance, Venezuelan journalism before Chavez was much more incisive and grilling than it is today. The castration of journalism in Venezuela was part of the process of descent into autocracy.

  17. It’s not just latin America, it’s Africa, its parts of the old Soviet Union and parts of Asia too. Every time some guy takes office, he acts as if he is a King, creates his own Constitution to codify his reign of terror, treats the Presidential Palace as his own private property. It’s Ukraine, it’s Venezuela, it’s Zimbabwe and many others. Winning an election should never result in this, just because group A won more votes does not mean group B (and C and D) become enemies of the state.

    In the US we have the “Bill of Rights”, basic laws that even a strong President with majorities in the Senate and House could not change. Although we seem to be coming to an end of its effectiveness it did last a long time.

  18. I would be in favor of a single six-year term for presidents, with no possibility of ever holding public office ever again. With only one possible term in office, there is no reason to enact short-term policies to appease the electorate at the expense of sound long-term policy. Six years is sufficient. If the policies of the president are popular and successful, it is still enough time to groom a successor.

  19. As long as there are weak controls on public expenditure, a President can use government funds to establish his own permanence in office. Obviously, in Venezuela there are no such controls, since no one can figure out what is in the national budget, Fonden, the national oil company/Presidential slush fund, etc.

    Changing this would be as important as declaring that there shall be no re-election, a la Honduras.

    Just an example: In Canada we have an Auditor General, who provides detailed financial statements directly to Parliament (ie. not through a Minister). These statements are thought to be necessary to establish a reliable context for legislative decisions, which often involve spending. Ten year terms mean that the Auditor’s position does not follow the political winds, but rather attains reasonable independence from the government of the day.

    It is quite common for Question Period in the House of Commons to be fueled by the reports of the Auditor General on this or that governmental undertaking or Ministry.

    I have never heard of an Auditor General getting reappointed, though!

    Nerds only link:


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