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The Re-electionistas: The Debate Continues

July 23, 2009

Twenty years ago, the Dominican Republic was the only Latin American democracy that allowed its presidents to seek re-election. Today, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have joined the list of countries that allow presidents to seek a second consecutive term. Venezuela and Colombia are poised to go further still; in a February plebiscite, Hugo Chávez succeeded, on his second try, in removing all limits on re-election in Venezuela. Meanwhile, supporters of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe have spent much of the past year laying the groundwork for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek a third consecutive term next year.

Is this an indication that democracy has matured in the region, or does the movement to extend presidential terms represent a threat to democracy? Champions of re-election argue that term limits constrain voter choice, while opponents warn that without such limits, incumbents are more likely to abuse their powers.

It may, however, be misleading to generalize. The debate over re-election is often tied to the circumstances of each country, in particular, the policies, performance and aspirations of individual leaders. The real issue is the process under which mandates are extended. When re-election is granted through unilateral or plebiscitary means, the result is often a concentration of executive power. On the other hand, negotiated changes, either with political opponents or through democratic institutions, promise a more balanced process that can help check executive and majority rule while providing voters with the kind of accountability and choice called for by defenders of re-election.

The debate over re-electing presidents is as old as the presidential institution itself. The founders of America’s republics, preoccupied from the outset with maintaining political stability in the absence of monarchy, were torn by questions of executive tenure. Alexander Hamilton flirted with the idea of an executive elected for life before advocating a constitution for the United States with a renewable four-year presidential term. Simón Bolívar endorsed both sides of the issue at different times. Delivering a constitutional plan to the Venezuelan Congress in 1819, he wrote, Nothing is more perilous than to permit one citizen to retain power for an extended period. The people become accustomed to obeying him, and he forms the habit of commanding them; herein lie the origins of usurpation and tyranny...

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John M. Carey is the John Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College.