It was not so long ago that the possibility of presidential re-election was an anomaly in Latin America, where most countries entered democracy in the early 1990s with systems that prohibited re-election. Twenty years after the Inter-American Democratic Charter, just approved in 2001 in response to the authoritarian experience of Fujimori in Peru, who opened the wave of presidential re-elections, we find a region with many devalued democracies (even some dictatorships) in which consecutive reelection first, and unlimited later, has been a substantial element of institutional deterioration.
How could it be otherwise, given the precedents of Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, populism and its inborn aspiration to stay in power It is leading Nayib Bukele to also seek his prolongation in the presidency of El Salvador. He is seeking this objective in two directions: on the one hand, the Supreme Court, whose renewal Bukele himself forced in May, has declared consecutive reelection legitimate, in contravention of the Constitution, which only admits it in a deferred manner; on the other, a proposal for constitutional reform by the Government aims to extend the presidential term from five to six years.
The opposite decision has been taken in Colombia, whose Congress has rejected an initiative by a group of deputies that sought to increase the presidential term (and that of other elected positions) from four to five years. President Iván Duque distanced himself from this proposal from the beginning, valuing the step back that Colombia has already taken by reversing the presidential reelection introduced with Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos and which has been prohibited since his own mandate.
Consecutive presidential reelection does not in itself favor or harm democracy, what happens is that in the Latin American countries where populism was introduced, as a first step towards unlimited reelection, it has led to a serious deterioration of democratic conditions, in a context of hyper-presidentialism and elimination of counterpowers. It coincides that the countries with the highest institutional and democratic quality in the region –Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica– prohibit consecutive reelection and admit it on a deferred basis. In any case, as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights made clear this summer, no president can invoke the possibility of re-election as a universal right.
El Salvador and Colombia
Through his vice president, Félix Ulloa, Bukele has left on the table a constitutional reform that basically supposes a new Constitution, since it proposes to introduce 215 amendments in a text that has 274 articles. In this way, without the need to convene a constituent Assembly, since his party already controls the Legislative Assembly in an absolute way, Bukele intends to change the rules of the game that Chávez, Correa and Morales did with their new constitutions.
In addition to the fact that the reform could directly incorporate the presidential re-election that last Friday the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared legal, it also contemplates extend the presidential term from five to six years, justifying it in the convenience that the legislative and municipal elections, which are every three years, sometimes coincide with presidential elections and others are just in the middle of the term. The reform must be approved by the current Assembly and ratified in 2024 by the next; Although these are tight deadlines, Bukele could already benefit from a sixth year that same 2024, before opting for a second term.
The reason for economic savings, also used in El Salvador, has been the main argument used in Colombia by 25 congressmen from various parties (most of them official) to request that both the term of office of the president and legislators (now four years) and of the governors and mayors (their term increased from three to four in 2002) will become five years. For this, the mandate of Duque and that of the current congressmen had to be extended for two years (or elect substitutes for a transitional period of two years), and thus all elections coincide since 2024.
Warning from the Inter-American Court
In a ruling this August, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) denied that limiting the number of mandates violates the human rights of politicians, if that limitation is in line with the principle of national legality, as argued by the president’s supporters. of Honduras, Juan Carlos Hernández, when promoting his re-election for a second term or those of Morales in Bolivia for his election for the fourth consecutive time as president. In addition, the IACHR spoke out against indefinite presidential reelection in the presidential system common to all of America.
The indefinite reelection, in force in Venezuela and Nicaragua (it was attempted by Morales in Bolivia, and in Ecuador a referendum eliminated it when Correa left power), “is contrary to the principles of a representative democracy,” according to the Court in a statement. . He also specified that “taking into account the concentration of powers that the figure of the president has in a presidential system, restricting the possibility of indefinite reelection is an ideal measure”; “The lack of limitations on presidential re-election leads to the weakening of the parties and movements that make up the opposition.”