Category Archives: Ecuador

Presidents and Populism in Latin America

Last week, Ecuador’s constitutional court decided to allow a constitutional reform, which would effectively remove term limits and allow President Rafael Correa to run for re-election in 2017, go forward for a vote in congress. Given Alianza Pais controls 100 of the 137 seats in the Assembly, it looks almost certain that this reform will pass.[1] Correa has already overseen a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term.

Attempts to reform term limits in Latin America are becoming a recurrent theme in my blog posts. Initially, most Latin American constitutions, to avoid the perils of presidentialism and prevent the long-term concentration of power in the hands of a few, limited presidents to one term in office. In fact, in 1990, the Dominican Republic was the only country that allowed presidential re-election.

But this has changed. In the 1990s, presidents such as Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori brokered deals to allow for an extension and/or redefinition of term limits. The trend has gathered pace in recent times. Under Hugo Chávez, term limits were abolished in Venezuela. 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 (this was stymied by the constitutional court). Last November, Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua. And this year, the Bolivian electoral council allowed Bolivia’s incumbent president, Evo Morales, to run for a third consecutive term in presidential elections this October, which Morales duly won with an impressive 61 per cent of the popular vote.

Is there any pattern here? Well, there does appear to be one thing that unites all of these leaders – they have all been accused of being populist, from the neo-populists of the 1990s such as Menen and Fujimori who began the process of dismantling term limits, to the present day left-leaning populism of Chávez and Correa, and the security-orientated populism of Uribe.[2] Populism is a term frequently bandied about in the context of Latin American presidents. One widely used definition views populism as the ‘top-down political mobilization of mass constituencies by personalistic leaders who challenge elite groups on behalf of an ill-defined pueblo, or ‘the people.’[3]

Within this context, it makes sense for these leaders to attempt to abolish term limits. If they are acting on behalf of a discontented population, who view political elites as venal and corrupt, and by extension the institutions they have established, then the reform of these institutions is a logical next step, particularly the abolishment of term limits, as the populist, as the true agent of the people, should not be constrained by such institutions. So it comes as no surprise that we tend to see constitutional reform and the reform of term limits go hand-in-hand with populism.

Having said that however, a caveat. Although it is something of a trope to suggest populism in Latin America is a much-debated concept, I had the pleasure of attending a recent talk here in Oxford by Kirk Hawkins, where Kirk highlighted the ongoing conceptual debates surrounding populism and proposed an ideational definition of the concept. Kirk’s definition has important implications. It suggests that populism is actually not that recurrent a feature of Latin American politics, despite a popular interpretation to the contrary. Secondly, Kirk’s definition eschews the organizational or political overtones to be found in the definition above (in addition to Dornbusch and Edwards’ classic economic conceptualisation of populism). Nonetheless, this definition also focused on how populists use a discourse to critique existing political elites (or actors). Again, even here, constitutional reform and the abolishment of term limits would seem to naturally follow such signals.

Of course, when presidents win three or four consecutive terms, it becomes much more difficult to rail against the established political order, given they are now the political elite. That however, is an issue for another day.

[1] The court ruled that this proposal did not need to be approved by a popular referendum, but given Correa’s very high approval rating, this would most likely have been passed anyway.

[2] E.g. see Roberts, Kenneth M., 2007. “Latin America’s Populist Revival,” SAIS Review, Vol. XXVII (1), pp. 3-15.

[3] Roberts, 2007, p. 5

Ecuador – Rafael Correa Floats the Possibility of Constitutional Reform to Allow Re-Election

Rafael Correa is one of Latin America’s most popular presidents. He was re-elected for a third term in a veritable landslide victory last May, and his approval rating has remained consistently between 65 and 85 per cent. Very few presidents in any country in the world can boast such popular support. The economy is expected to grow by 4.5 to 5 per cent this year and Correa, after defaulting on US$3.2 billion in foreign debt before buying 93 per cent of the debt back at 35 cents on the dollar, has announced his intention to return to international capital markets to raise US$700 million. Indeed, all seems to be going swimmingly for Rafael Correa.

So it is perhaps only slightly surprising that Correa, two weeks ago on Pulso Político on TC Televisón, indicated support for a constitutional amendment that would largely abolish presidential term limits. Currently in Ecuador, the president is allowed to hold office for three consecutive terms. Indeed, Correa already oversaw a constitutional reform to allow him run for this third consecutive term. This proposed constitutional amendment would allow Correa to run again in 2017.

According to Correa, amending the constitution would prevent the right, in collusion with the media, from halting the ‘historic Citizen’s Revolution’ his government is overseeing. On Wednesday, when speaking to the Harvard Kennedy School, in response to a question from the audience, Correa somewhat ambiguously stated: ‘In 2017, I want to retire from the presidency and from politics, but it’s not always possible to do what (you) want.’ It was only in January that Correa, in an interview with El Telégrafo, suggested that he had no intention of running again in 2017.

Correa’s apparent about turn is better understood in the wider regional context. Initially, most Latin American constitutions, to avoid the perils of presidentialism and prevent the long-term concentration of power in the hands of a few, limited presidents to one term in office. In fact, in 1990, the Dominican Republic was the only country that allowed presidential re-election. Beginning with Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori however, Latin American presidents have sought to alter their constitutions with alarming frequency in order to allow for their re-election. Only last November, Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election. Currently, only five Latin America countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Paraguay, now prohibit presidential reelection.

Given that both the legislative assembly and Correa’s party, Alianza PAIS, have already begun discussing the practicalities of such a constitutional reform, the wind seems to be blowing in Correa’s direction. Once again.