In Latin America, term limits often fall victim to political reform. In Bolivia, it looks as if this trend is continuing. Last weekend, the Bolivian parliament, in a marathon session that lasted nearly 20 hours, passed legislation that would allow for a constitutional amendment, to be approved by national referendum next year, which would enable the current incumbent, Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), to be re-elected for a fourth consecutive term. The bill, which required a two-thirds majority, was easily carried by Morales supermajority (the MAS hold 88 of 130 seats in the house).
If this constitutional reform is approved in the forthcoming national referendum, and assuming Morales can win the election (given his approval rating of over 60 per cent, not an unrealistic assumption), this would mean Morales could potentially remain in power until 2025. In fact, Evo Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014. He is not due to step down until 2020.
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.
The current proposal would allow Bolivian presidents to now hold three consecutive five-year terms and if approved by popular vote, would pave the way for Morales for run again in elections in 2019. Unsurprisingly, Morales’ political opponents are viciously opposed to the proposal.
This dismantling of the constitutional term limits is not an isolated event in the region. 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 2014, Rafael Correa indicated support for a constitutional amendment that would largely abolish presidential term limits in Ecuador. Correa already oversaw a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term. Last November, Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.
It is expected that the Bolivian referendum will be held next February.