NO SOONER had Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, secured himself a second term in a run-off election in June than he announced that he wants to prevent such a thing happening again. He will propose a constitutional change barring immediate re-election and lengthening future presidential terms, from four to five or six years. Why didn’t he think of that before, cynics might ask? He might reply that it was in Colombia’s interest to give him more time to complete peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, for which a single four-year term proved too short.
Mr Santos’s move runs counter to the regional trend. In country after country in Latin America, term limits have been loosened over the past two decades. The latest to seek to abolish them altogether is Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa. He declared last year that his current term would be his final one, only for his supporters to unveil a bill in July allowing indefinite re-election for all public offices. Since Mr Correa commands a large legislative majority, Ecuador is likely to follow Venezuela and Nicaragua in allowing a presidency for life.
Not coincidentally, these countries are among a handful in Latin America in which presidents now exercise near-absolute power. Mr Correa, the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega deployed their electoral majorities to crush the independence of the judiciary, curb the media and hamper opposition. In the extent of their power, if not in the route by which they obtained it, they resemble the region’s 19th-century dictators—whose absolutism is captured in the title of a classic Paraguayan novel by Augusto Roa Bastos called “Yo, el Supremo” (“I, the Supreme”).
The trend to looser term limits goes far beyond these three countries. Daniel Zovatto of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an inter-governmental organisation, points out that in the 1980s the norm in Latin America’s restored (or newly established) democracies was to restrict presidents to a single term. Of the 15 Latin American countries with no plans for indefinite re-election, four now allow two consecutive terms and seven permit former presidents to run again after an interlude. Only four—Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay—still confine their presidents to one term only. (Some Mexican streets still bear the name “Effective Suffrage, No Re-election”, the slogan under which the country rose in revolution in 1910 against Porfirio Díaz, whose 30-year rule included seven consecutive terms.)
Critics of this trend say that incumbents have an even greater advantage over opponents than they have in, say, the United States. Only twice since 1990 have candidates who were sitting presidents lost elections in Latin America. Several incumbents have also managed to anoint their chosen successors, who in the case of the late Néstor Kirchner of Argentina was his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
But the recent success of incumbents owes much to their good fortune in presiding over a golden decade of commodity-fuelled economic growth, and in their distribution of some of this windfall to the poor. Now that economic growth has slowed, presidents have become less popular. A test of whether incumbents remain near-invincible will come in Brazil’s election in October, in which Dilma Rousseff faces a tough fight for a second term.
There are, in fact, some sound reasons for allowing re-election—though not indefinitely. If a president is popular and has done a good job, surely voters should have the right to choose him or her again? A four-year term, as eight countries have, is too short to do much. Indeed, it is not all that long ago that political scientists fretted that Latin American presidents were too weak rather than too strong.
What matters is not whether a president can run for re-election, but whether countries possess the countervailing institutions required to curb the abuse of executive power and the advantages of incumbency. Strong and independent judiciaries, electoral authorities, media and political parties are all vital.
Paradoxically, Colombia is fairly well-served in this regard. Its constitutional court knocked down an attempt by Álvaro Uribe, Mr Santos’s popular predecessor, to run for a third consecutive term. Mr Santos told Bello during the campaign that he thinks Colombians dislike re-election, initiated in 2006 by Mr Uribe. That may be one reason why he barely squeaked to a second term, winning the run-off by less than six percentage points. It seems that Mr Santos has come up with a solution to a problem that Colombia doesn’t really have. Perhaps he should export it to Ecuador.