Buenos Aires — When Latin American countries turned away from military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them added constitutional term limits restricting presidents to a single term. Latin politicians are still too often corrupt, but term limits have curbed their arrogant hold on power and cleared out stagnant leadership.
Here in Argentina, many people breathe a sigh of relief that the efforts of the erratic former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to abolish term limits failed and that she had to leave office in 2015. Her reformist successor, Mauricio Macri, is cleaning up the economic mess she left behind, and he just won a resounding vote of confidence in midterm elections.
In neighboring Paraguay, riots in April forced the incumbent president, Horacio Cartes, to abandon his efforts to have Congress allow him to run again.
Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, has called for a national referendum to restore the term limits that were abolished by his predecessor, leftist Rafael Correa. “I believe that alternation of power extends the rights of participation, strengthens accountability, and guarantees democracy,” Moreno told the nation in a televised speech.
But several other Latin American countries have seen their term-limit laws neutered or abolished by skullduggery. Of the 14 Latin American countries with term limits, four now allow leaders more than one term, and seven allow presidents to run again after waiting out a term. Only three — Mexico, Guatemala, and Paraguay — have stuck to a one-term limit.
In other countries, term limits have fared far worse. A key moment in the destruction of Venezuela’s democracy came in 2009, when Hugo Chávez made use of an election rife with fraud to help push through a measure that abolished the country’s term limits. In Nicaragua, Guyana, and Honduras, courts packed with presidential cronies have declared existing term limits unconstitutional. In Honduras, the unpopularity of that move led last week to a disputed photo-finish presidential election, riots, and a subsequent curfew. Last week also saw Bolivia’s politicized supreme court nullify the results of a 2016 referendum in which voters rejected allowing President Evo Morales, a Chávez admirer, to run for a fourth term.
There are clear reasons that Latin leaders of all stripes hate term limits. Their countries need more political continuity, they insist, and reforms take more than a single term to see results. In some cases that may be true, but there is a darker reason for incumbents to persist: They love power. As incumbents, they are far more able to muzzle the media, traduce the judiciary, and fiddle with election results than politicians are in, say, the U.S. or Canada. Since 1990, sitting presidents have lost only two elections in Latin America, and several have been able to choose their successors — as the late Néstor Kirchner in Argentina did with his wife, Cristina.
Incumbents in Latin America are far more able to muzzle the media, traduce the judiciary, and fiddle with election results.
In “Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America,” a 2014 article, political scientists Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold looked at 125 elections in 18 Latin American countries over a 60-year period. They concluded that incumbent leaders had a clear advantage over their opponents, in part because they were able to use public-sector funds, raised at the last minute, to buy votes.
With this level of incumbent protection, the radical step of impeachment is the only safety valve many countries have to curb presidents who’ve gone off the rails. Sadly, a full eight incumbent Latin American presidents have been impeached since 1990 — most recently, Dilma Rousseff, in Brazil last year. It’s far healthier for a democracy to remove a president at the ballot box than by moves from partisan-minded legislatures — a lesson that opponents of President Trump should heed even if Democrats regain control of Congress next year.
Term limits have always been popular in the U.S., with polls consistently showing that about 75 percent of the people support them. But even here at home, self-interested politicians were able to derail a 1990s movement to extend to Congress the term limits that bind the presidency and 37 of the 50 governors. But term limits may be making a comeback. In the 2016 presidential campaign, candidates Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul supported term limits not only on Congress but also for the Supreme Court. After all, 49 or the 50 states have either term limits or a mandatory retirement age for their state supreme-court justices.
Naturally, in our hyper-politicized age, current officeholders are horrified at the prospect of term limits, regardless of the country they live in. As columnist George Will has written, this is a telling point: “The political class’s reaction to term limits is a powerful, indeed sufficient, argument for them.”