Author Archives: David Doyle

Brazil – Pressure Increases on President Temer

The repercussions of the Lavo Jato corruption scandal continue to rock the foundations of the Brazilian political classes. The whole scandal centres upon bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in return for a whole gamut of favours. Odebrecht has admitted to paying over US$1 billion in bribes and apparently, they even had a designated department whose sole function was to bribe governments across the region in return for state building contracts.

A little over a month ago, a federal judge, Edson Fachin, released a list of prominent politicians that were to be investigated for allegedly receiving payments from Odebrecht, based on information provided to federal investigators in Brazil by 77 former co-operating Odebrecht executives. At least eight government ministers, nearly a third of the cabinet, were on this list, and it included President Michel Temer’s chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, and his foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira.

Well, now things have taken an even worse turn for the beleaguered government of Michel Temer. Last Friday, tapes were released by prosecutors, given to them by two brothers, Joesley and Wesley Batista, who are in control of the gigantic Brazilian meat packing firm, JBS. As part of a larger plea deal involving allegations of bribery and corruption, the Batista brothers released these tapes to the federal prosecutor, on which we can allegedly hear President Temer approving continued cash payments by the Batista brothers to the former Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, in return for his silence. As part of their testimony, the Batistas also allege that President Temer received millions of dollars over the last seven years in order to fund his electoral campaigns.

The President’s office denies these allegations and disputes the validity of the tape. The Brazilian Attorney General, Rodrigo Janot however, has also accused President Temer of using his power to try and quash the investigation.

The political situation in Brazil has now only become more precarious. As has Temer’s presidency. In response to these revelations, yesterday saw violent protests in Brazil. Protestors in the capital Brasilía started a fire in the Ministry of Agriculture and damaged, and stormed, a number of other government buildings and ministries. There was an estimated 35,000 protestors on the streets of Brasilía calling for the resignation of President Temer and his cabinet in the wake of these fresh allegations of corruption. The protests, organized by labour unions and parties on the left, have clashed a number of times with police and in response, President Temer issued a decree that would allow troops, not only to guard government buildings, but also address the disorder more generally in Brasilía.

Allowing the military onto the streets of Brasilía to tackle public protests, in a country with Brazil’s past history of military authoritarianism is a good indication of how much pressure President Temer is facing. This decree was due to expire on May 31, but due to the political and public backlash to this decision, President Temer revoked this decree earlier today.

The combination of a corruption scandal and mass protests can, and indeed has, forced Latin American presidents to pre-emptively resign, or has forced the house to begin impeachment proceedings. Nonetheless, even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast institutional support have proven very difficult to remove from office.[1]

In this regard, things are looking bleak for President Temer. One of Temer’s coalition partners, the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB), announced on Sunday that they were leaving the government coalition and joined opposition parties in calling for the President’s resignation. At the same time, the influential Brazilian bar association voted to support Temer’s impeachment. This decision will be laid formally before the lower house of Congress. Temer’s largest coalition partner, the PSDB, is apparently also considering whether they will continue as part of the ruling coalition.

This all comes at a time when Temer is trying to push an important pension bill through Congress, which would introduce a mandatory retirement age and reduce death benefits, legislation that is deemed crucial in order to deal with Brazil’s very large primary budget deficit. Given the scale of the current political turmoil, it looks like this will have to wait.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; or Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101.

 

Venezuela – Current and Former Latin American Presidents Denounce Recent Events

The situation in Venezuela appears to be deteriorating. Amid daily street protests, a steady stream of fatalities as police clash with protestors, rampant price instability and food shortages, and against a backdrop of a crumbling state, epitomised by rising infant mortality and malaria cases, Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president of Venezuela, has stepped up his confrontation with the opposition controlled legislature.

As I have written recently on this blog, although political machinations denied the opposition the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution, they have nonetheless been a thorn in the side of President Maduro, and at the end of last month, the Venezuelan Supreme Court announced that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. In the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of opposition initiatives.

This move sent the opposition into overdrive and sparked a wave of street protests and international condemnation. Now, President Maduro has called for a new constitution, and requested that a constitutional assembly, or constituyente, be established in order to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state. President Maduro issued a decree to begin the process of convening such an assembly. This move has sparked even more intense protests and to add to the chaos, President Maduro’s supporters have also taken to the street to defend the call for the assembly.

Given that presidential elections are due to held in December 2018, it seems likely that the purpose of the constitutional assembly would be to prolong or delay this election, and extend the tenure of President Maduro. At the same time, the existence of an alternative legislative body, could undermine the legitimacy and power of the current opposition dominated Congress. A similar tactic was employed by Rafael Correa in 2007.

But the last vestiges of the Venezuelan government’s international legitimacy appear to have ebbed away. Having been suspended from the Mercosur since December, today at a meeting in Buenos Aires, a group of current and former Latin American Presidents denounced what they termed the “descent into hell” of Venezuela. This group included President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, former Uruguayan president, Julio María Sanguinetti, former Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos, former Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Spanish prime minister, Felipe González.  They specifically criticised President Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution.

Of course, what effect this will have remains to be seen. It doesn’t appear as if President Maduro has very many options. Given the depth of polarization in Venezuela and the anger of the opposition, any chance of a controlled transition seems improbable. In response to increasing opposition, the government has moved towards increasing authoritarianism. For the people of Venezuela, an end to this crisis still seems like a long way away.

Brazil – One Third of the Cabinet to be Investigated for Corruption

Everybody was waiting for this. I have written before on this blog about the long tentacles of the huge Lavo Jato corruption scandal, which has engulfed the Brazilian, and increasingly the regional, political establishment. The whole scandal centres upon bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in return for a whole gamut of favours. Odebrecht has admitted to paying over US$1 billion in bribes and apparently, they even had a designated department whose sole function was to bribe governments across the region in return for state building contracts.

Well, now in Brazil, a federal judge, Edson Fachin, has released a list of prominent politicians that are to be investigated for allegedly receiving payments from Odebrecht. This list is based on information provided to federal investigators in Brazil by 77 former Odebrecht executives as part of a larger plea bargain. It was due to be released earlier, but the former federal judge responsible for the investigation, Teori Zavascki, was killed in a plane crash in January.

The list was part of a ruling that allows federal prosecutors to begin investigating politicians named by the Odebrecht executives and for the somewhat beleaguered government of Michel Temer, it is particularly damaging. It may also have consequences for the 2018 presidential elections. At least eight government ministers, nearly a third of the cabinet, will now be under investigation for allegations of bribery and corruption. It includes Michel Temer’s chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, and his foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira. It also includes the Speaker of the lower house and the head of the Senate, not to mention a large chunk of sitting senators (24), 40 federal deputies and 3 governors.

This comes at a moment when Temer is trying to push an important pension bill through Congress, which would introduce a mandatory retirement age and reduce death benefits. This legislation is deemed crucial in order to deal with Brazil’s very large primary budget deficit. The deputy responsible for its introduction to the Chamber of Deputies has also been named on this list.

Potential candidates for the 2018 election have also been implicated, including Aécio Neves and José Serra (both from the PSDB). It is difficult to see how Temer’s party, the PMDB, could realistically contest the election given the incumbency curse they will face, and it remains to be seen whether the PT can shrug off its own involvement in the corruption scandal. Given that nearly the entire upper echelons of Brazilian politics have been caught up in this scandal, a cynical and downtrodden electorate might end up turning to an outsider like Marina Silva, or a populist, like the right-leaning Jair Bolsonaro.

One thing is for sure. There is more to come with this scandal. It has already spread across Latin America and its tentacles have thus far enveloped the sons of former Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), the current president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, and in Colombia, a former senator who admitted receiving bribes from Odebrecht has accused current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, of receiving illegal campaign donations from the Brazilian firm. In Peru, Odebrecht’s chief executive there has supposedly told Peruvian investigators that Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru between 2001 and 2006, has also received US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht, in return for a lucrative infrastructure project.

We have not seen the end of Lavo Jato by a long shot.

Venezuela – Executive and Legislative Branch in Open Conflict

In Venezuela, the executive and legislative branch are now engaged in nothing short of open war. The Venezuelan Supreme Court announced late on Wednesday that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. The Court alleges that the National Assembly are in contempt of court over a case involving three opposition legislators. The opposition claim that this move is simply a coup. In fact, some have compared it to the autogolpe (self-coup) of President Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1992.

Executive-legislative relations in Venezuela have been smoldering since the legislative elections of December 2015. As I have discussed previously on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political shenanigans managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election, revolving around accusations of vote buying.  To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January, the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

Although this denied the opposition the magic two thirds majority required to change the constitution, they have nonetheless placed President Maduro on the back foot, both in and out of the Assembly. However, President Maduro has found an ally in the Supreme Court. The Venezuelan constitution does not grant President Maduro veto power, but presidents are allowed to refer a bill to the Supreme Court, who can rule on the legitimacy of the legislation. So far, in the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of the opposition initiatives.  In this case, the Court accuses the leaders of Congress of not handling the case of the expelled legislators according to legal procedures.

This all comes amid a debilitating economic crisis for Venezuela. The Maduro administration has been seeking investment in the state oil company PDVSA in order to raise much-needed income. Some of this mooted investment was to come from Russia. The opposition led-Congress was looking set to oppose these type of joint ventures and foreign investment in Venezuela’s oil industry. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court also authorized Maduro to negotiate such ventures without Congressional approval.

Venezuela’s actions have been condemned by governments across the region and by the Organization of American States, but it looks as if Maduro’s administration are now being forced to go for all or nothing. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002.[1] These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.

In Venezuela, it doesn’t even look like much of that façade remains any more.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Guatemala – Minister of Social Welfare Arrested

In mid-January, the neophyte politician and President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, completed his first year in office. In the two months since then, Morales has faced mounting pressure on a number of different fronts, including a horrific fire that saw the death of forty girls, the forced resignation and arrest of one of his ministers, the investigation of a special advisor and an ongoing corruption scandal involving members of his own family.  All of this amidst a number of public protests calling for his resignation.

Morales was always going to face difficulties. Elected in October 2015 as a prototypical outsider riding a growing wave of the ‘politics of anti-politics’, Morales, of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-Nación), a self-descried ‘common man’ with no prior political experience, spent the last fourteen years starring in a popular TV comedy series with his brother. Although a social conservative, his policy platform was always something of a mystery given his election manifesto was only six pages long. During the campaign, Morales railed against the existing political elites and widespread political corruption and his campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’. But his party won only 11 of 158 seats in the house, and it seemed likely that this outsider was going to face problems governing effectively.

Last Wednesday, these problems began to come to a head with a fire in a government-run children’s care home near Guatemala City, which has resulted in the death of 40 teenage girls so far. Amidst allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the care home, together with overcrowding, the Minister for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, resigned on Monday, but was then promptly arrested, along with the director of the shelter and a ministry official on charges of negligent homicide.

Morales replaced Rodas with Candida Rabanales, but this has not stemmed public anger. The socialist political party, Convergencia CPO-CRD, yesterday formally asked Congress to withdraw the immunity of President Morales, so that he can be charged in relation to the disaster. Although this is highly unlikely, there have been a number of public demonstrations and protests in response to the fire and the government’s response. These can be added to a number of other demonstrations in Guatemala city since mid-January, including a large agricultural protest that called President Morales ‘incapable’ of governing and demanded his resignation.

This has not been helped by an ongoing corruption scandal involving the president’s brother Samuel (Sammy) Everardo Morales and his son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, both of whom have been placed under investigation by the UN-supported International Commission on Corruption in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office. They allegedly fabricated invoices and contracts for goods and services that were never actually supplied and concerns Fulanos y Menganos, a restaurant in Guatemala city, owned by Congressman Gilmar Othmar Sánchez, who is a representative for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), Morales’ party.

And today, Guatemala’s Supreme Court removed the immunity of Edgar Justino Ovalle, a former military officer and currently a member of congress for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional. Ovalle, one of the co-founders of the President’s party, and a close adviser to Morales, is accused of human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war, including forced kidnapping and murder.

All of this must worry the President. Since the return to democracy across Latin America, large sustained street protests, often in response to allegations of corruption, have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Guatemala is not witnessing widespread protests akin to Brazil last year, for example. Far from it and what is more, although protests played a role in the downfall of many presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive. But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office.[1]

With so few seats in Congress, and beset on all sides, Morales’ position is precarious. If noting else, it goes to show the difficulties that these outsiders will face when trying to govern with little institutional knowledge or support.

Notes

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

Latin America – Odebrecht Scandal Expands across the Region

In my last post, I discussed the fallout from the Lavo Jato corruption scandal, which was partly responsible for forcing Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil, out of office last year. Parts of this scandal involved allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former worker party president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011). The scandal spread to Peru, where former president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), has been accused of receiving US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in return for granting them the contract to build a large road and infrastructure project. This led to the Peruvian government offering a 100,000 soles award (approximately US$30,000) for information leading to Toledo’s arrest.

Well, the scandal rumbles on. And rumbles across the region, dragging into its orbit current and former presidents across Latin America.

In Panama, prosecutors are now seeking to detain the sons of former president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014). Ricardo Alberto and Luis Enrique Martinelli are accused of depositing part of a US$22 million bribe that Odebrecht paid in return for lucrative state contracts in Panama. And current Panamanian president, Juan Carlos Varela, has been accused by a former advisor of receiving political donations from Odebrecht. In Colombia, a former senator who admitted receiving bribes from Odebrecht has accused current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, of receiving illegal campaign donations from the Brazilian firm.

In Argentina, members of Mauricio Macri’s centre-right organization have been accused of ties with Odebrecht, and in the case of Gustavo Arribas, of accepting a direct bribe from the firm. All of this comes amid a controversy over a government plan to settle a fifteen year debt incurred by Macri’s father when he owned the Argentine postal service. In the Dominican Republic, the Brazilian firm admitted that it payed US$92 million in bribes to Dominican government officials to secure large and lucrative infrastructure projects. And on Wednesday, prosecutors in Chile raided the Santiago offices of Odebrecht as part of a larger 10 country investigation into the political links and acitivies of the construction company.

So is there an explanation for such an encompassing and massive scandal? Part of the problem clearly lies with norms and regulations governing campaign financing across Latin America. There are few public subsidies to political parties and most campaigns are paid for by corporate donors, while repeated attempts to regulate donations have fallen short, given the lack of an incentive structure for doing so among the political classes.[1] The lack of strict regulations governing campaign financing is surely compounded by the rise of populist outsiders who appeal to “the masses” via television. Kurt Weyland has argued that “over the past 15 years, such personalistic leaders have sought to bypass established political parties and interest groups in order to reach “the people” through direct, most often televised, appeals aimed at building up a loyal following from scratch. Because its methods are costly, the new media-based politics has given ambitious politicians much higher incentives to resort to corruption.”[2]

Political donation kick-back schemes therefore like the one operated by Odebrecht are simply too difficult for many Latin American politicians to turn down, given the spiraling cost of electoral campaigns across the region. Expect more revelations to emerge.

Notes

[1] See the recent Economist article on campaign financing across the region: http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21717985-unavoidable-trade-offs-paying-democracy-how-latin-america-deals-campaign-finance.

[2] Kurt Weyland. 1998. The Politics of Corruption in Latin America. Journal of Democracy 9 (2): 108-121.

Peru – Peru Offers Reward for Arrest of Former President Toledo

One of the topics I return to most on this blog is probably corruption and specifically, corruption in the president’s office. The last number of years has witnessed a veritable landslide of corruption cases by those occupying the highest political office across Latin America. Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. Another former Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, is currently in Matamoros prison in Guatemala City, serving a sentence for receiving bribes from importers. In El Salvador, evidence emerged linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, has appeared in court to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in. In Mexico, Angélica Rivera, the wife of president Enrqiue Peña Nieto, has become embroiled in a scandal concerning a mansion she purchased in 2012, and Grupo Higa, a government contractor. In Peru, questions have been raised about the manner in which former president, Ollanta Humala, funded his presidential election campaigns in 2006 and 2011. And of course most famously, only last year, Dilma Rousseff, the embattled former President of Brazil was forced out of office partly as a consequence of the huge Lavo Jato corruption scandal which engulfed the Brazilian political establishment, which has also involved allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Well now it seems the fallout from that crisis is spreading. Apparently, Odebrecht’s chief executive in Peru, Jorge Barata, told Peruvian investigators that Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru between 2001 and 2006, received US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in return for granting them the contract to build a large road and infrastructure project. Toledo has been under investigation in Peru since 2013, after his mother-in-law supposedly bought a number of expensive houses via offshore companies that seemed to extend significantly beyond the family’s means.

Somewhat ironically, Toledo came to power in 2001 in the tumultuous aftermath of the resignation of Alberto Fujimori, partly by railing against the corruption scandal engulfing Peru at that time following the discovery of videos of Peru’s head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, bribing TV network executives. Toledo was in France when this news broke and is now thought to be in California, where he currently holds a visiting professorship at Stanford University. Peru has now offered a 100,000 soles award (approximately US$30,000) for information leading to his arrest and current Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has asked Donald Trump to arrest and extradite Toledo back to Peru.

But this scandal looks set to explode to other presidencies. Apparently, Obebrecht had a designated department to bribe governments across the world in return for state building contracts. The presidency of Alan García (2006-2011) is now also falling under suspicion, given that Odebrecht won a record number of contracts in Peru during his tenure and allegations have also surfaced that Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, received illegal campaign donations from Obebrecht.

But why such persistent and prevalent cases of corruption in the very highest political offices? Explanations range from the historical development of the state and Guillermo O’Donnell’s infamous ‘brown areas’, to the lack of transparency during the economic reform process of the 1980s and 1990s, to the combination of presidentialism and the PR electoral system, a variant of which most Latin American countries employ.[1] Of course, while this type of graft is a problem in most other regions of the world, what makes the Latin American case particularly interesting is the often very public judicial and legislative battles to bring this wrongdoing to heel. It seems likely that the Obebrecht case is only going to inspire more of these.

[1] See For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.

Bolivia – Evo Morales Contemplates Fourth Term

Last March, I wrote about the defeated referendum in Bolivia to overturn the existing restrictions on term limits. President Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum. This would have enabled Morales to be elected for a fourth consecutive term. However, with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate. Although Morales had significant popular support and the overwhelming support of the legislature to hold the referendum, the defeat appeared to signal a definitive limit to his presidential aspirations and that seemed to be the end of that.

Rumblings from Evo Morales and his government appear to suggest however, that this is not the end of that. At a rally for supporters of his MAS party, at which Venezuelan Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz spoke, Morales announced his intention, contrary to the results of the referendum and Bolivian law, to seek a fourth term as president and just before Christmas, the MAS named Morales as its candidate for the 2019 elections.

Although Morales highlighted his economic success during the referendum campaign (with growth rates of nearly 7 per cent per annum), he was dogged by a corruption scandal involving a former relationship from 2005 with Gabriela Zapata. Zapata held a position with the Chinese construction firm, CAMC, which had been awarded state contracts worth over US$576 million. Zapata has since been charged with corruption. When all this emerged during the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform. President Morales however, now states that the Bolivian electoral court should nullify the results of the referendum because it was overshadowed and unduly tainted by these allegations. The government even released a documentary in cinemas, El Cártel de la Mentira (Cartel of Lies), which challenges the veracity of these allegations and attacked the president’s critics.

It is difficult to see how Morales and the MAS will get around the current legal restrictions. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. On this basis, Morales’ opponents challenged his right to run in the last election in October 2014. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009 and as such, his opponents claimed he has already held two consecutive terms, and so was constitutionally barred from running again. The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office was not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect.

Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

Term limits have frequently been challenged in Latin America, particularly in those countries in the Andes that Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes.[1] In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term. The Colombian Constitutional Court however, thwarted his efforts. Rafael Correa in Ecuador initiated a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term and Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.

If Morales does succeed in reversing the referendum result and running for office in 2019, this would suggest Bolivia is dangerously close to a form of competitive authoritarian, regimes described as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety. Nicaragua and Venezuela are both already viewed as exemplars of these hybrid regime types. Watch this space to see if Bolivia will join them.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Presidents, Policy Compromise and Legislative Success

This post is based on a paper by Christian Arnold, David Doyle and Nina Wiesehomeier that is forthcoming in the Journal of Politics.

Presidents play a central role in legislative activity in Latin America. Previous research highlights that some form of ideological compromise on behalf of the president is vital to sustain successful legislative coalitions. Yet, primarily due to the lack of a firm empirical basis on which to measure such presidential give-and-take, the extent to which presidents make use of such policy compromise, and under what conditions this is a viable strategy, remains unknown.

One of the primary obstacles towards a better understanding of these dynamics has been – to date – the difficulty of deriving reliable comparable estimates of the policy compromise of presidents over time. We collected ‘State of the Union’ addresses for 73 Latin American presidents between 1980 and 2014 and we used the Wordfish algorithm (Slapin and Proksch 2008) to provide a position for each one of these presidents, for each year, on the main latent political dimension. The heatmap below illustrates these positions. Each country’s time series reports standardized z-scores and progresses from the earliest speech available in our sample on the left to the most recent observation on the right. The shading of the cells reflect the estimated ideal-point; more negative values are shown in darker shading, increasingly becoming lighter with more positive values. Note that absolute positions can only be compared within a country. Cross country comparisons are only possible for presidential movements, because standardisation per country expresses movements relative to the stretching of the respective main political dimension.

Executives in Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay and also Venezuela all display consistent and stable political views. In contrast, in Argentina, Chile and Mexico, the presidents’ movements appear to trend over time. The remaining countries demonstrate a high mobility of presidents along the latent issue dimension.

With this cross-national time-series, we can explore to what extent presidents engage in policy compromise, and under what conditions this is a viable strategy. Our central finding is relatively straightforward. We show that the president does not adopt a static policy position across her term. Rather, the president, if she wishes to pursue a statutory legislative agenda, will respond to shifting dynamics in the house. Specifically, we suggest that when the position of the median party changes, the president will shift her policy position in the same direction. Of course, the degree to which a president is willing to compromise will depend on a number of conditioning variables; specifically, the president’s non-statutory power, her government status and her ability to offset the need for compromise with increased material transfers (see the figure below). At high levels of executive power, and when the president has access to large amounts of discretionary funds to use as pork, she will compromise less in response to changes in the median party position. We also demonstrate that when the president compromises her position in response to the median party in this manner, a president will enjoy a higher rate of success for her legislative initiatives than were she not to do so.

We think our results have some important implications.  Presidents in Latin America are not always the inflexible and imperial leaders as previously characterized by Juan Linz. However, they also show that under certain circumstances they can be, in particular, in minority situations. In short, institutional variation among separation of power systems will condition the degree of harmony between the executive and legislative branch. The flip side of the coin is of course that presidents are willing to compromise given the right institutional incentives. Our results show that a president can influence the interbranch relationship with signals of policy compromise. Our results on policy compromise are indicative of this inter-branch legislative dynamic that helps the president to build and maintain coalitions, and pass legislation in the house.

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega Cements Power with Landslide Electoral Victory

Just over two weeks ago, Nicaragua held presidential elections. The incumbent, Daniel Ortega, who ran with his wife, Rosario Murillo as vice-President, dominated the election, winning with approximately 72 per cent of the popular vote. Nicaragua has experienced steady economic growth in recent years and has not experienced the same level of violence and homicides that have plagued many of their Central American neighbors. Additionally, the opposition are currently weak and fragmented, with Ortega’s nearest challenger, Maximino Rodríguez of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), gaining only 14 per cent of the vote.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. In 2009, he also sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011.

In 2013, Ortega sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished presidential term limits; altered the election of the president; and increased presidential power. Specifically, the proposal changed article 147, and removed the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the previous, two-term limit. The reform also awarded presidential decrees the status of legislation (article 150), and allowed the appointment of military officers to the cabinet. The other major change involved the abolition of the current 35 per cent minimum electoral threshold for candidates in presidential elections, which was replaced with a requirement for a simple 5 per cent lead over the next nearest rival.

What is more, the opposition is weak and fragmented partly because of the actions of the incumbent. Critics allege that the Ortega government has actively manipulated the political playing field to undermine the electoral chances of his competitors. For example, with just five months to go before the election, the Supreme Court ruled that Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Partido Liberal Independiente, was no longer allowed to remain in that role. Additionally, opposition parties have claimed that the recent presidential election was in fact rigged and called for their supporters to boycott the vote.

Clearly, part of Ortega’s electoral success lies in the economic success of Nicaragua, its relative stability and a reduction in poverty since 2006 of nearly 13 per cent. But part of Ortega’s success lies in the increasing electoral authoritarianism of the regime. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002.[1] These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. They are often accompanied by judicial reform and media manipulation. Nicaragua, as well as Venezuela, ticks many of these boxes, and indeed the recent electoral victory of Ortega with 72 per cent of the vote, exceeds the 70 per cent threshold that Levitsky and Way suggest in order to classify non-competitive elections. Echoes of electoral authoritarianism have also been heard in the Andes. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.