Since the mid-1990s, no fewer than 10 countries of
Term limits fall into three general categories: the complete prohibition of re-election (
At the moment, several incumbent governments in Latin America are trying to allow a third presidential term; one,
Defeating a long-sitting president in
Eliminating or unduly extending term limits engenders corruption, the main cause of public distrust in democratic institutions, and a significant obstacle to economic development in the region. Latin American presidents possess a disproportionate amount of influence over other branches of government. In the face of political gridlock, they can rule by decree. They can choose and dismiss their cabinets with little or no congressional oversight and hire and fire other officials at will. In times of emergency, they can suspend basic civil rights and possess significant economic and political influence over the media.
Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s heavy-handed efforts to concentrate his presidential powers and his continued efforts to extend his mandate met with popular support at first: In 1990, he easily won an absolute majority of the vote. His shutdown of congress in 1992 met with even higher public approval ratings. Yet, as the shine on his important victories against terrorism and inflation faded, so did the patience of his electorate. By 2000, despite significant opposition to his administration, Fujimori was able to win a third term using a pernicious mix of bribery, intimidation and state largesse. Had Fujimori abided by the existing term limits, his legacy might have been a different one. As it was, the transition of power in 2001 shook Peruvian democracy to its core, its former hero turned villain.
With term limits, transitions take place as a natural course of events in the democratic system. Politics ceases to be viewed as a zero-sum game. Ruling parties are able to cultivate new leadership which can carry on the successful policies of their former leaders, but also correct for past missteps. They can remake themselves in the public eye and adapt to the dynamic challenges of the world around them. Such has been the case of
Likewise, the opposition is more likely to remain a loyal opposition, rather than try to upset the system, since it can envision taking power one day via a free and fair election. Peaceful transitions in
Of course, term limits alone will not guarantee a flourishing multiparty democracy. Despite its promise of “Universal Suffrage and No Re-election,” the Mexican Revolution did not usher in a meaningful multi-party democracy until seventy years later. To avoid another dictatorship, Paraguayans carefully included a no re-election clause in its constitution, yet the reign of the Colorado Party remained unbroken for nineteen more years until the election of Fernando Lugo last year. In both countries, however, presidential succession between individuals, even of the same party, paralleled a gradual change in political reform. Moreover, the vigorous, even acrimonious, debate within the ruling parties demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the ruling party and provided important opportunities for the opposition in the general elections. The legacy of “No Re-election,” one important check on the otherwise unrivaled power of these political parties, contributed in some small measure to the eventual peaceful transitions of power.
It is telling that when the issue of re-election was broached by sitting presidents in
Efforts to extend term limits beyond two terms are not driven by ideology. Their impetus comes from governments whose power is unrivaled and popularity unprecedented. In politics, though, both power and popularity are ephemeral. In a democracy, the electorate should maintain its prerogative to change its mind, and politicians should have the opportunity to encourage it to do so.