Political Scientist: The referendum that blocked the return of Rafael Correa to the presidency of Ecuador on Sunday reflects a change in Latin America in the face of former presidents and re-election, warns Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College in the United States.
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“Latin Americans have realized that presidents in power and out of power are arrogant and difficult to contain,” Corrales said in a telephone interview with BBC about an article in the prestigious Americas Quarterly magazine about the dilemma that the presidents of the region represented.
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Expert in issues of presidential power in Latin America, Corrales believes that this current situation contrasts with the fashion of presidential re-elections that the region lived in the midst of the economic boom of the past decade.
But it also evokes old ideas that Latin American democratic liberalism had since the nineteenth century, even before the United States, remember.
What follows is a synthesis of the dialogue with Corrales, co-author of a book on the legacy of former President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
What is the problem that you see with the former presidents in Latin America?
The problem of former presidents in Latin America is that they have a hard time withdrawing from politics. And in their attempts to remain valid, even when their time may have passed, they do all kinds of political acts that prevent the renewal of leadership.
They are generally polarizing: their followers love them, but they usually generate very deep allergies. Generally the option is very visceral. It costs a lot of work in their respective parties to emerge new leaders, because it is like a very bright sun. Then they overshadow new groups within their parties.
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Can you give some examples of the most emblematic cases that you are currently observing in the region?
We are in a year in which the most emblematic cases are receiving certain stoppages of some kind. In the case of Colombia, the eternal battle of the Santos government was from the beginning to stop the Uribismo. This was achieved with a change in the Constitution to prevent reelection.
In Peru, Fujimorism is the central theme of Kuczynski’s election. We see the case of Lula in Brazil: to a certain extent, one can say that Lula is the only way to stop Bolsonaro, but (also) can say that Bolsonaro arises because of Lula, because allergies produce the return of Lulism.
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In Chile, it is Bachelet-Pinera-Bachelet-Pinera. This is bringing a very big discontent in all of Chile. In Argentina, the election of the year passed revolved in (around) stopping Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
In Honduras, part of the problem is that behind the candidacy of Nasralla, who does not officially win, is the pressure of ex-President Zelaya.
That is, many times the former presidents manage to engage politicians in the opposition or in the government. And it is very bad because they are very polarizing.
In Ecuador, the citizens decided to limit the presidential mandate to two terms, which in practice prevents former President Correa from seeking a new term in office. Can this change, promoted by President Lenin Moreno, serve as an example for the region?
Yes, this case may remind Latin Americans of the concept of limits to re-election: it is a necessary democratic measure in countries where there is so much caudillismo.
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It is a lesson that Latin Americans derived from the nineteenth century, but that with the economic boom of the 90s, when it comes out of the time of economic adjustments and there were so many bonanzas, people gave many presidents permission to be re-elected. And they forgot that this brought more caudillismo instead of less.
The example of Ecuador is like returning to agree the Latin Americans that for something this restriction to the reelection exists.
The lesson is that Latin Americans have realized that presidents in power and out of power are arrogant and difficult to contain. Therefore, if Latin America really wants to avoid continuity, which is important for there to be alternation and democracy, they have no choice but to put limits on the repeating ex-presidents.
A former Latin American president once told me that forbidding him to return to the presidency, even with a period of government in between, would be to prevent him from doing what he does best: to govern. Should not this be decided in each election, according to the candidates?
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In all democracies, there is the concept of limits to power. So it is not unthinkable that an ex-president can be set limits. It is fallacious to think that an ex-president is like an ordinary candidate. A former president has many advantages when competing. It is not that he is being punished.
Let’s think of it as a favor for new groups. Like the quotas for women in Congress: we know that women can not compete at the same level and therefore it is necessary to put certain restrictions on the space that men will occupy. Well, we have to create a space for non-ex-presidents to compete.
In Ecuador, there are those who warn that Correa maintains an important electoral base and could even be strengthened if Moreno takes unpopular measures to revitalize an economy in difficulties. So, putting a limit on re-election really solves the problem?
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No. I refer to the Colombian case. Uribe is banned from re-election but remains the one that determines conservatism. However, with this problem, Uribe has to think about other options, what his followers will want. That is very good and allows competition.
Obviously prohibiting re-election does not eliminate the ideological movement behind an ex-president, nor does it stop his followers from following him. What it prevents is that a person so polarized returns to power that in his attempt to return to power he does a lot of damage to the country. It is not the total solution to continuity, but it prevents continuity from becoming a much more serious problem.
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Do you see other cases at the regional level that can serve as a reference to other countries to deal with this issue of the former presidents?
For me, the most successful thing is this constitutional reform. It is simple, it is usually obeyed and fulfills its purpose of forcing former presidents to seek new personalities and debate.
We are seeing as a kind of return to the idea that liberal democracy sacrificed too much in the period of the economic boom. After seeing what happened in Venezuela, with Correa, in Bolivia, with these presidents who want to perpetuate themselves and feel indispensable, Latin Americans realize that a bad president in power is fatal, but a former president who wants to return is dangerous.
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This idea of prohibiting reelection is Latin American, it did not exist in the original US Constitution. It was not that they copied to Latin America. But when they realized after Franklin Delano Roosevelt that it is very easy for a president to become unbeatable and there is no renewal, then the United States incorporates the amendment (twenty-second to the Constitution, which establishes a limit of mandates for a president). But this was already part of Latin American democratic liberalism since the nineteenth century.