Is Indefinite Reelection a Friend or Foe of Democracy?

Term Limits Are a Blunt Rallying Cry

By Arduino Tomasi

The ongoing discussions in Ecuador regarding the effects of indefinite reelection have not arisen from a vacuum. The ruling party PAIS Alliance has submitted a draft constitutional amendment — now in the legislative process — to, among other things, eliminate fixed terms under which a person may occupy a public office. This amendment was not introduced on account of academic debate; rather, the political interest behind it is that President Rafael Correa may be reelected.

It is possible to discuss reelection, but one mustn’t forget why it is being discussed: there is no text without context. And one cannot fail to consider its counterweight: across-the-board opposition to the idea of reelection works as a useful platform for certain politicians.

From that point, I think its effects are being exaggerated. For example: if the amendment is not approved, would that be good news for democracy?

The answer is not clear. In Ecuador, the previous constitution (1998-2008) established unlimited reelection for public officials, with the sole exception of the president. And during the decade this constitution was in force, the country experienced her worst period of governance. If there is anything our political history suggests, it is that institutional engineering goes far beyond a single mechanism.

In the classical formal models of political science, a theoretical prediction is that the mechanism of reelection (given what it implies in terms of salaries, ego, etc.), is an incentive that can benefit voters.

For example, Ferraz and Finan analyzed municipalities of Brazil, and found that mayors in their first term — with the possibility of reelection — were 27 percent less corrupt than mayors in their second, and last, period. The authors estimate that this mechanism prevented the diversion of US$160 million of public funds.

But the interesting thing about this study is another one of its findings: in municipalities with a large presence of independent media and prosecutors, mayors in their second term virtually behaved the same way as those who were in their first term.

The lesson here is intuitive: reelection may have desirable effects, as long as it is accompanied by other institutional mechanisms — such as avoiding political collusion with the judiciary.

In countries with institutional designs such as Ecuador’s, there are structural issues that will not be solved with fixed terms. For example, Tsebelis and Alemán (2005) mention as a typical presidential prerogative in Latin-American presidential systems, their power as conditional agenda-setters.

In Ecuador, as in other countries of the region, the president can intervene in legislative processes not only through reactive powers, such as the veto (which activates the status quo). The premier also has “positive” powers that allow him to introduce reforms to bills that become laws by default, if a qualified majority of legislators does not reject it.

That prerogative grants the president a greater discretion that is not addressed by the traditional literature regarding the separation of powers. That would be, for example, a structural issue with a direct impact on the dynamics of the executive and legislative branches of the government.

In Ecuador — and in Venezuela — discussions regarding institutional designs have resumed. That reelection occupies the central spot in these discussions is due not so much to its importance to the democratic health of a country, but for convenience, as it is a useful vehicle to mobilize forces.

The opportunity to discuss major issues should not be wasted.

Arduino Tomasi is an Ecuadorian political scientist and masters student in political science and political economy at the London School of Economics. Follow @arduinotomasia.

Psychopathy of the Indispensable

By Aparicio Caicedo

EspañolIn 1878, Porfirio Díaz became president of Mexico under the slogan “Effective Suffrage, No Reelection.” He fulfilled his main campaign promise: to constitutionalize the principle of no reelection. Indeed, once he completed his mandate, Díaz left office.

However, given the possibility of running again after a presidential term was open, he did so in the elections of 1884, and won. But this time he warned, as to appease his conscience, “Today I become president again, and I know I won’t be able to do it anymore.” Shortly afterwards, he promoted a reform that allowed indefinite presidential reelection for the first time. He left power 27 years later.

The lesson was so traumatic for Mexico that its legislation prohibits reelection until today. There are no exceptions. The subject is sort of a taboo there; people must not touch it.

Why has it happened over and over again ever since in Latin America? Why do characters so ideologically diverse like Alberto Fujimori, Álvaro Uribe, and Rafael Correa, to mention the most paradigmatic, seem born of the same mother when talking about reelection?

Obviously, the aim of remaining in power is not a matter of ideological bias, but of human nature. It is the result from a sum of psychological deviations that usually affect leaders who have received large electoral support, who consider themselves indispensable heroes of an unfinished deed, and whose blessed projects cannot remain unfinished due to mere formal or temporal limits.

The political result of being carried away by such delusions has always proved to be disastrous, if not tragic. To prove it, just take a look at a few geographically close and relatively recent cases, of which little is said.

It was Alberto Fujimori — and not Hugo Chávez, as some think — who set the tone that the leaders of the Andean socialism are following today. In 1992, the “Chinaman” dissolved the Peruvian congress and intervened in judicial institutions. Through a constituent assembly controlled by his supporters, he promoted a new constitution that allowed immediate reelection. As a result, he ran for reelection in 1995, and won overwhelmingly.

One year later, Peruvian lawmakers approved a controversial interpretative law that calculated Fujimori’s second term as his first under the new Constitution, thus allowing him to run for a third election in 2000.

When the Constitutional Court tried to stop this nonsense, the Congress (dominated by the ruling party), ousted the dissenting judges. Fujimori won again, but soon after he ended up self-exiled in Japan, embroiled in corruption and espionage scandals, and a serious economic crisis.

Peruvians learned the lesson: they passed a law that prohibits immediate presidential reelection until today.

In 2004, Álvaro Uribe, then president of Colombia, promoted a constitutional reform that allowed immediate reelection only once. He ran the following year and won crushingly. In 2009, his supporters in parliament promoted another reform to open the possibility of a third term. They had broad popular support, but the Colombian Constitutional Court blocked the initiative, noting that a third term would allow a change that would disrupt the essential balance of the rule of law and the democratic system.

Colombia also learned the lesson: the presidential election was strictly prohibited by a recent constitutional reform.

Now, history repeats itself in Ecuador. Rafael Correa is not seeking to amend the Constitution on ideological grounds, but guided by the same psychotic effects of power that led Díaz, Uribe, Fujimori, and Chávez. That same psychic mutation explains how an element of the current Constitution (reelection only once) mandated legislatively by PAIS Alliance — today, even the rectors of private universities in Ecuador cannot be reelected more than once — suddenly became a “bourgeois institution.”

That is why we must reject the illegitimate constitutional amendment that would allow indefinite presidential reelection in Ecuador. That is a lesson that history has made crystal-clear; a lesson that has no place for the simplistic readings of democracy of those who forget — either out of naivety or convenience — that power needs institutional boundaries to protect us from the psychopathic syndromes generated by messianic delusions.

Aparicio Caicedo is an Ecuadorian with a PhD in law from the University of Navarra. He is the author of El new deal del comercio global. Follow @AparicioCC.

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