Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Limit the Power of Presidents, Not their Term in Office

Reading Time: 4 minutes[i]Executives [b]should[/b] be allowed to run for re-election indefinitely.[/i]
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Let them run. The problem is not presidential re-election. The problem is presidentialism.

As long as Latin American democracies continue to be based on institutional arrangements—both formal and informal—that concentrate power in the executive, democratic development will be undermined. This concentration of power carries the seeds of instability that will hinder, if not reverse, democratic consolidation, regardless of whether presidential term limits are imposed. It underlines both the perils of authoritarianism and the lack of accountability that accompany governance in the region.

In recent months, the debate over presidential re-election has been fueled by the open effort to eliminate term limits championed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the more concealed campaign by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to do the same. Recent constitutional assemblies in Ecuador and Bolivia have set presidential re-election limits at two terms, following a trend that began with then-President Alberto Fujimori’s interpretation of the 1993 Peruvian constitution. Subsequent reforms in Argentina in 1994 and in Brazil, under the first Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration (1994–98) consolidated the trend. Today, the practice of limiting leaders to two consecutive terms has extended to all major countries in the region, with the notable exceptions of Mexico and Chile. In most countries—except for Mexico and Costa Rica—term limits do not generally apply to legislators or to local and provincial officeholders. (Venezuela eliminated them with its recent referendum.)

To be sure, allowing officeholders other than the executive to seek reelection is generally seen as a good and convenient feature in well-functioning democracies. It increases responsiveness and places the correct incentives on officeholders to be accountable to their constituents. Without the possibility of re-election, representatives lack the incentive to serve those who voted them in. The prospect of re-election implies that representatives can be “fired” by constituents who feel they have not been served well. Efforts to introduce term limits were initially framed as promoting responsiveness. But it turns out that they do not have a significant effect in limiting political careers: officeholders who are term-limited simply switch to other elected positions to con- tinue their careers. Nor do they bring about a renewal of the political elite, since many local political bosses turn to their relatives to fill their places or have stand-ins elected to occupy their seats until they are allowed to run again.

There are better mechanisms to promote accountability and responsiveness. Rather than preventing people from running, reformers should promote institutional changes that foster competition, lower entry thresholds for new challengers and level the playing field in campaign spending. In short, rather than prohibiting a television series, regardless of its popularity, from going into a new season, the best way to promote better television is by facilitating competition among different networks. Television series will survive if they can withstand competition from new challengers. By forcing a television series off the air because it has been on the air too long, we will not automatically produce better- quality television. The same applies to politics.

True, individual politicians are not the only actors interested in serving constituents well. Political parties also have those incentives. In a healthy democracy with strong and accountable parties, if individual officeholders are not allowed to run for re-election, the political parties they represent have every incentive to make sure their representatives do a good job. Otherwise, the parties will be punished when voters go to the polls.

Unfortunately, Latin American countries have notoriously weak party systems. Thus, voters often have few tools at their disposal to punish and reward incumbents other than the threat or benefit of re-election. This is particularly true for presidents who run as independents. If reelection is impossible, independent presidents have no incentive to fulfill their campaign promises. Even worse, voters have no way to punish independent presidents who are banned from seeking re-election.

The debate about presidential term limits in Latin America is a remake of the debate over presidentialism and parliamentarism. Advocates of the parliamentary system argued 20 years ago that Latin American democracies organized on a presidential basis are inherently unstable, since they concentrate too much power in one person. If that argument is accepted, allowing presidents to seek additional terms would clearly worsen the situation.

Yet when you get lemons, you might as well try to make lemonade. The drive in favor of allowing unlimited re-election for presidents in Latin America should be used to curtail the powers and attributions of presidents. When leaders such as Hugo Chávez press for unlimited re-election, citing the examples of France, the United Kingdom or Germany, pro-democracy advocates should respond by calling for constitutional reforms that, while letting presidents run for re-election indefinitely, also introduce better checks and balances that actually undermine the strength of the president, such as removing their control over the legislative agenda and by limiting government by decree and discretionary power over spending. Thus, Chávez will have the same ability as a German chancellor to run for office as many times as he likes, but his executive powers will be limited just as they are in Germany.

Latin American democracies suffer from lack of competition. Individuals or political parties tend to promote monopolies and oligopolies that undermine it. Political parties favor high entry barriers to prevent new parties from challenging their oligopoly control. Individual politicians in congress make it difficult for newcomers to challenge them by enacting complex and opaque campaign finance rules—which in many cases directly favor incumbents.

The push to eliminate presidential term limits should be seen as a symptom of an ill-functioning democracy, rather than its cause. It would be wiser, therefore, to fight the disease itself, not the symptoms. Term-limited presidents already exercise too much power. Rather than replacing one overly powerful president with another equally powerful one, it would make more sense to reduce the powers and attributions of the presidency regardless of who occupies the office. Let them run as often as they wish, but make races more competitive, level the playing field and reduce the powers and attributions of the president.

Tags: Chavez Constitutional Referendum, Indefinite Reelection, Term Limits
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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