Since the democratic transitions of the 1980s, most of the Latin American republics have reformed their constitutions at least once, some have done so several times. These reforms have either sought a redistribution of power between different political actors, or the perpetuation of power by certain politicians. The latter has been worryingly evident with a number populist leaders, who have added new clauses for re-election for presidency or abolished term limits and as a result directly abused democratic values.
Does this render the perpetrators of power politics tyrants? No. Mere opportunists? Yes.
Beginning in the 1990’s, articles that regulated and defined the rules for presidential re-election have been frequently reformed. Traditionally, direct re-election has been proscribed in Latin America, yet since 1992, ten countries have reformed their constitutions with regard to the rules governing presidential re-election. Three changed them twice, Colombia, Dominican Republic and Peru
Re- election rules have become less restrictive, changing from prohibited to not immediate or immediate re-election.
Historically, examples of constitutional amendment for direct benefit of the incumbent president exist in abundance, from Menem in Argentina, to Fujimori in Peru. Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama and Paraguay constitute less well known examples.
In recent times, the vehemently populist leader, Hugo Chavez took heed to the advantages of power politics in 1998 and authorised immediate re-election. In December 2007, he experienced an unsuccessful referendum to remove term limits, but succeeded fourteen months later in eliminating term restrictions with 54.3 per cent of the public vote. He told the crowds after: “I ratify to you that I will not fail you, the people of Venezuela, the hopes of the people”. Did Chavez fail the people, or did he fail the sacredness of constitution?
Two popular presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia also secured their re- election after the reform of the constitution. Cardoso amended the constitution in 1997 and Uribe both in 1991 and 2005. Hipólito Mejía of the Dominican Republic followed in 2002, with less successful re-election bid.
Less prevalent but still as worrying, are the procedures of a constitutional reform that have been used to alter the power distribution by creating a new power centre in the form of a constitutional assembly. By claiming a higher democratic legitimacy than parliament, the constitutional assembly can try to replace parliament. Hugo Chavez brought forward this reform in 1998 and we have seen subsequent copies of it in Ecuador with Correa in 2007-2008 and Bolivia with Morales in 2006-2007.
Just last week up to half a million people take to the streets of Buenos Aires as Argentina’s biggest and noisiest demonstrations in a decade. One of the central qualms of the protestors was the possibility of their President, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner taking on a third-term through the well known Latin American process of constitutional amendment. One can bear witness to the historical trend and predict this likelihood.
Such acts of leaders are undeniably incompatible with democratic excellence. Configuring your constitution to expand and maintain your power is selfish, corrupt and inexcusable. Yet we must acknowledge the popular support for these new-radical populist leaders, they have won in many cases with landslide victories. Had their actions hindered democracy within their countries, we would have seen mass uprisings on a level more substantial to that which occurred.
Power politics is harmful to all those involved, save those wielding power, however democracy as a whole is not threatened in Latin America. To achieve a near-perfect democracy, the trend of constitutional amendment for presidential re-election must come to a halt, but after years of struggle and anticipation, one cannot deny the existence of tangible democratic values, they just have a little further to go.