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

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