Incumbents remain in power in Latin America

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Since 1985, 15 of 17 incumbent presidents in Latin America seeking re-election have won. The recent reelection of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez highlights the incumbent reelection power in the region. There are various reasons for this growing trend, including promises for greater representation of the poor and working classes. These populist leaders have virtually ensured themselves a win at the ballot box through various means. The increasing number of terms that a single candidate remains in power threatens the strength of democracy, a fact that causes political scientists concern. An analysis of the trend reveals the unstoppable nature of some of these leaders, such as Chavez or former Argentine President Juan Peron.

As Professor Aníbal Pérez-Liñán argued in his latest Panoramas submission, Chavez’s latest race for the presidency was an unlikely defeat because Chavez was able to secure the election due to the nature of the Venezuelan regime at this time. Because Chavez has been in power for so long, the Venezuelan government has become synonymous with its leader. Pérez-Liñán points out the differences between Chavez’s administration and those of other leaders who were able to secure power without interruption for more than 14 years--mainly, that Chavez has not yet resorted to systematic repression and fraud. Yet, constitutional amendments and socialization of previously private entities has blurred the line between government and the leader himself. By finely tuning instruments to his benefit, Chavez has effectively rigged elections without the use of broad sweeping executive powers, as previous leaders were apt to do. The Venezuelan example demonstrates the danger of a popular president on democratic rule.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, after accepting defeat in 1990, returned to power in 2007 and set about enacting institutional reform that would ensure a second defeat would not happen in the future. In 2009, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court eliminated term limits, empowering an already popular Ortega to remain in power as long as he can secure the vote. Term limits, being the main obstacle to populist leaders’ hold on power in Latin America, are alarmingly disappearing from the rule of law. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was the first president in recent years to begin this trend. Since then, several Latin American countries have followed in his footsteps to foster reelection by incumbents. Presently, Bolivian President Evo Morales is challenging constitutional term limits, arguing that the constitutional two-term limit does not apply to his term in office before the constitutional amendment in 2009. The implications of these moves raise questions about the strength of democracy in an already democratically fragile region.

Unilateral policymaking threatens democracy by effectively removing the separation of powers. When leaders such as those mentioned above remain in power long enough to become inseparable from the government itself, any policies made are hard to distinguish from the leader’s own personal preferences. A true liberal democracy is characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights and civil liberties. When leaders enact policies that lead to a greater hand in media and public entities, these characteristics become much more difficult to achieve.


Kimberly Bennett
Kimberly Bennett is a J.D./M.I.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. She is Senior Editor of Panoramas and JURIST. She holds an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Political Science, and a Certificate in Latin American Studies. She is studying international human rights and civil rights law.

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