Last week, the Bolivian electoral council announced that Bolivia’s incumbent president, Evo Morales, will run for a third consecutive term in presidential elections due to be held on October 12th of this year. This is by no means inconsequential, as this most likely clears the way for Morales’ re-election. Morales, of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), is the clear favorite to win this election with polls suggesting he commands roughly 44 per cent of the vote, far ahead of his nearest rival, the cement tycoon, Samuel Doria Medina, of the center-left Frente de Unidad Nacional.
Opponents of Morales however, accuse him of abusing the constitution. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009. As such, his opponents claim he has already held two consecutive terms, and so is constitutionally barred from running again.
The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office is not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect. This paves the way for Evo Morales to potentially hold office until 2019.
Whether or not you agree with Evo Morales’ interpretation of the Bolivian Constitution, he is by no means alone in Latin America in fudging the lines between the constitution and term limits, a topic I have touched upon before in this blog.
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. However, beginning with a number of ‘neo-populists,’ such as Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori, Latin American presidents began to broker deals with legislatures and the electorate to allow for an extension and/or redefinition of term limits.
And this trend has continued apace. 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. In April, Rafael Correa indicated support for a constitutional amendment that would largely abolish presidential term limits in Ecuador. Currently in Ecuador, the president is allowed to hold office for three consecutive terms and in fact, Correa already oversaw a constitutional reform to allow him run for this third consecutive term. Last November, Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.
Although this trend is widespread, as the Colombian case demonstrates, it is likely to be slower and more muted however, in those Latin American countries with activist and independent judicial branches.