Latin America's Caesar Temptation

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On June 28 a coup deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, ending his attempt to hold a referendum that would permit his reelection. 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 crystallised 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 and which 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, reelection 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'état 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 modernised. 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 reelection 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 reelection: seven consecutively and seven discontinuously.

But something new has recently been introduced in Latin America's political system: the notion of unlimited reelection. Hugo Chávez first achieved this in Venezuela, and there are other spectres of potentially perpetual reelections. In the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández (1996-2000, 2004-2008, 2008-2012) began serving his third four-year term in office in 2008, and the party in power has not ruled out the possibility of modifying the Carta Magna to allow him yet another term.

In Colombia, Álvaro Uribe (2002-2006, 2006-2010), in power since 2002, got his chance for a first reelection in 2006 through a questionable constitutional reform, and appears set to try for a third term by forcing a referendum to amend the constitution again. In Brazil, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, in power since 2003, was reelected in 2007, and now many members of his party are pushing for a constitutional reform that would allow him a third term.

In a recent interview with the British journalist David Frost, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, who returned to power in 2006, declared himself in favour of immediate reelection. Before having completed a year in office, Fernando Lugo, President of Paraguay, declared himself in favour of presidential reelection, currently prohibited in his country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, immediate reelection is already possible. In short, Latin America appears to be becoming a region of democracy by plebiscite.

Many of the presidents reelected, either directly or by alternating terms with someone else, a la the Kirchners, won because they seemed to be responding to social demands for more security or less poverty. So Latin America is now constantly presented with "extraordinary" situations that supposedly require a certain individual, such as a great, benevolent cacique, to occupy the centre of the political scene and govern with an enormous discretionary capacity.

But, as the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham once wrote, the more one is exposed to the exercise of political power, the greater the temptations. True to that dictum, the excessive personalisation of politics, the search for political hegemony, and the fragmentation of the opposition reflected in Latin America's neo-Caesarism have served to concentrate power in the executive and hollow out countervailing institutions, including intermediary bodies between the state and society.

The attraction of remaining in power is getting stronger across the region. In view of this, it is essential to seek better systems of cheques and balances as well as to strengthen and sharpen public control of the executive.

All of these tasks are domestic; the danger posed by the profusion of reelected presidents will not be checked by external forces. Moreover, since Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the United States has lost its formerly strong authority in promoting democracy. Confused and self-absorbed, Europe is not in the best position to wield influence. Russia and China continue to apply their own authoritarian formulas at home and have little to offer internationally to curb caudillismo.

So the problem of democratic Caesarism is one for Latin America's people to confront. They will either reject this trend, or succumb to it.

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