QUITO, Ecuador — Franklin D. Roosevelt had it, so did Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and so does Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Could Ecuador’s Rafael Correa be the next president to win the right to consecutive and indefinite reelection?
That’s the question the country’s constitutional court is debating, and the answer could radically change the future of this Andean nation of 16 million.
After years of vowing that he wouldn’t seek office when his term ends in 2017, Correa recently announced that his Alianza País political party would push for a constitutional amendment that would open the gates for the charismatic socialist to keep his job permanently.
Stung by recent municipal elections where his party lost key cities, including the capital, Correa said the change is needed to preserve the advances of his “Citizens’ Revolution.”
“My sincere position was always against reelection,” he told the country recently, “but after deep reflection, and knowing that sometimes our choices are between the lesser of two evils, I’ve decided to support this initiative.”
For his critics, permanent reelection is simply one more step in the country’s slow march toward Venezuelan-style 21st Century Socialism with Correa at the helm.
“Democracy is based fundamentally on alternating power,” former President Lucio Gutierrez, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2005, told the Miami Herald. “When power becomes eternal so does corruption, because there’s no accountability, no respect for human rights and no respect for those who are out of power.”
Scrapping term limits is one of 17 reforms that Alianza País submitted to the court, which has until August to decide if the changes can be approved by congress or require a national referendum.
Correa wants the changes to go through the legislature, where his party can guarantee him the two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendment, and most analysts believe the administration-friendly court will grant him his wish.
A recent survey of 2,200 people by Cedatos polling firm found that 61 percent believe a referendum should be required. If the amendment goes through congress, 53 percent of those surveyed said they would oppose its passage and 39 percent would be in favor of opening the doors to permanent reelection.
Correa has tried to make the case that the congress represents the true will of the voters, said Cedatos Vice President Carlos Córdova, “but the people are very clear about what they consider ‘the will of the nation’ and that’s a referendum.”
Ecuador has had a volatile relationship with its leaders. From 1997 until Correa took office in 2007, the country churned through seven presidents — some of them lasting just days. Three of them were forcibly ousted.
But Correa’s arrival changed that. Through a mix of charisma, and pumping billions of oil wealth into public works — including some of the region’s best highways, schools and hospitals — Correa has remained a beloved figure. He won reelection in 2013 with a landslide 58 percent and has approval ratings near 60 percent.
His critics say his popularity comes at the expense of bankrupting the country and destroying democratic institutions. But many here aren’t ready to see him go.
“For me, he’s the best president we’ve ever had because he really cares about the poor, and we need to keep him,” said Vladimir Lopez, a 40-year-old security guard, who was soaking up the sun in front of the white-washed Carondolet presidential palace.
Lopez said he wasn’t worried that the country might be saddled with Correa forever.
“If he isn’t doing his job well, we will get rid of him,” he said.
At least five countries in the Americas — Chile, Panama and Uruguay among them — allow indefinite reelection after a president is out of office for at least one or two terms.
The United States had continuous reelection (Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times) until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951.
But only Nicaragua and Venezuela allow their presidents to run for office continuously and indefinitely. In Both cases, leaders there have been accused of amassing power, squashing civil liberties and becoming entrenched. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was in power for almost 15 years until he died in office in 2013.
Gutierrez and others say that Correa has already subverted the courts, the National Electoral Council (CNE) and other government entities that might guarantee free elections. He’s also gone after the press, cowing the media with multi-million dollar fines. This week, Hoy newspaper suspended its print edition citing government harassment that it blamed for scaring off advertisers.
“It’s like playing a soccer match where they make the rules, change them halfway through the game and then expel our players,” Gutierrez said. “It creates an omnipotent power that becomes almost impossible to defeat democratically at the polls.”
Juan Paz y Miño, a historian and political analyst at Ecuador’s Catholic University in Quito, said any variation on reelection — whether it’s continuous or with alternating terms — has its “problems and benefits.”
“Indefinite reelection is equally democratic as any other system,” he said. While there may be a risk of the incumbent amassing power “it also guarantees that a successful political project can stay in power.”
“If the people want to reelect their president, why not let them?” he asked.
For now, Correa is playing his cards close to the chest. While he’s backing the reform, he claims to be a reluctant candidate.
Reelection “should be the very last option because I believe it’s convenient for new leaders to arise,” he told a crowd in Quito recently. “But if I’m the only option to defeat the right wing and their corrupt media outlets, then I’ll be there, friends, fulfilling my historic responsibility.”