On June 28 a coup deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, ending his attempt to hold a referendum that would permit his re-election. That same day in Argentina, former president Nestor Kirchner was defeated in a mid-term election that many people viewed as a test of whether or not he or his wife Cristina, Argentina’s current president and Nestor’s successor, would continue as president after the vote of 2011. Both events crystallized a peculiar Latin American phenomenon: the temptation to empower a new, local Caesar.
This “caesarism” is not a new idea. Instead, it marks the return of a practice that had seemed to have been consigned to history’s dustbin that has now returned with a vengeance.
In 1919, the first edition of Democratic Caesarism, by the Venezuelan historian and sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, was published and widely circulated across the continent. Vallenilla claimed to be seeking an effective (as opposed to the formal) constitutional system for his country.
To achieve this end, Vallenilla argued that, at least in the case of Venezuela, a charismatic leader, confirmed in power through regular elections, would be best placed to concentrate political power successfully and guarantee institutional order. Ninety years later, it looks as though with the rise of a variety of neo-caudillos, Vallenilla’s idea of the “good Caesar” is coming back.
Indeed, the victory of presidential incumbents across Latin America has become the predominant trend in the region’s elections. For most of the 19th century and well into the Cold War era, re-election of a sitting president was generally prohibited in the great majority of Latin American countries, owing to a general fear of leaders remaining permanently in power, abetted by the prevalence of electoral fraud.
Permanence and fraud are, of course, the hallmarks of authoritarian governments everywhere. In the last century, coups d’etat were often the means by which (mostly military) rulers remained in power for many years, outlawing and persecuting the opposition. Nowadays, leaders are achieving the same end at the ballot box.
This phenomenon is relatively new. With Latin America’s most recent democratic transition, which began in the 1980s, national constitutions and electoral laws were gradually reformed and modernized. Several democratically elected leaders urged constitutional modifications in order to remain in power.
Over time, what had been an exception became routine: the possibility of consecutive terms or alternating re-election of presidents in countries with little democratic tradition. This trend was accompanied by the fact that these societies were marked by a high degree of inequality, as well as unstable economies, weak political parties, fragmented oppositions and fragile institutions. Indeed, in Latin America today, there are 14 representative democracies that allow presidential re-election: seven consecutively and seven discontinuously.
But something new has recently been introduced in Latin America’s political system: the notion of unlimited re-election. Hugo Chavez first achieved this in Venezuela and there are other specters of potentially perpetual re-elections. In the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez (1996-2000, 2004-2008, 2008-2012) began serving his third four-year term in office last year and the party in power has not ruled out the possibility of modifying the Carta Magna to allow him yet another term.