Political Wear and Tear 

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 29, 2013


The electoral setback of the ruling coalition in Argentina underlines the inevitable wear and tear that results from holding office for several years. When the ruling party has been in power for more than a decade, the opposition will predictably benefit from declining popularity and support for the incumbent administration. Thus, when faced between losing power against the opposition and securing the same road map provided that new faces are brought in, ruling coalitions should seriously consider choosing the latter. Sometimes, staying on course justifies a change in leadership.


The biggest challenge for incumbent governments is to adapt to new realities and bring in new faces with new energy that can continue on the same path of policy priorities. Even if the roadmap remains popular with voters, and there has been progress in recent years, the absence of new faces might eventually prove too costly for the incumbent coalition. Having the same faces in charge hinders the chances of any government, regardless of how popular it has been. Having new faces helps old ideas look new and fresh.


Though credit should go to those in the opposition who capitalize on the opportunity afforded by the lack of renewal in a ruling coalition, the biggest threat to incumbent governments is not the strength of the opposition but their own resistance to bringing in new blood. The more old and regular faces in the government line-up, the more vulnerable the government will be as it ages in power. Ruling coalitions are more likely to be defeated by their own inability to adapt than by the electoral strength of the opposition.


For governments that have succeeded in overcoming economic crises, and for administrations that have successfully steered the nation in the right direction, accepting that to guarantee continuity in policies they must accept a change in leadership is not an easy process. Precisely because they were able to offer credible alternatives in a time of crisis, those leaders who steered the country back into the path of progress find it very difficult to realize that challenges require new faces and new leaders.


During a presentation in New York in 2011, reflecting on the reasons why his centre-left Concertación coalition lost power in Chile in 2010 after 20 years in office, former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos shared an explanation he heard from former Spanish Socialist leader Felipe González to account for the reason he lost power after 14 years. President Lagos recalled that Felipe González told him the Socialist Party lost because Spaniards had simply gotten tired of seeing the same faces on television day after day for 14 years. Lagos added the fact the Concertación coalition had different presidential candidates every time helped reduce the inevitable political wear and tear that results from holding office.


Democracy at times often needs new faces. Adam Przeworski, one of the most notable contemporary political scientists, has defined democracy as “systems where parties lose elections.” Voters have to have the option to punish incumbent governments and empower the opposition to take charge. Voters are more likely to vote for the opposition when the incumbent government repeats the same candidate line-up and fails to bring in new blood. People might be in favour of the direction the country is going, but they will often want to have a new crew to take charge of the ship. Thus, even when there is certainty that voters do not want to deviate from the road map, the resistance to renew leadership will induce voters to give the opposition a chance in the next election.


Eager to seize power, the opposition will always be willing to compromise and accept the politically popular ideas of the incumbent government and simply offer new and fresh faces. The late Italian Christian Democratic leader Guilio Andreoti, who thrice served as prime minister, was famously quoted as saying “power wears and tears, especially to those who don’t have it.” When countries are making progress and governments are popular, the opposition will offer to stay on course with a different crew. Change in faces more than change in policies is the strategy chosen by opposition leaders who aspire to win office.


The electoral setback suffered by the Fernández de Kirchner administration in Argentina should serve as a warning sign for other long-serving governments in the region. The Venezuelan Chávez-Maduro governments have been in power since 1999. Evo Morales’ leftist MAS government first came to office in 2005. The Vázquez-Mujica Broad Front leftist coalition in Uruguay has also held office since 2005. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa won his first presidential election in 2006. The PT, with Lula and Dilma Rousseff, has ruled Brazil since 2003. All those governments will inevitably have to choose between keeping the same leaders as candidates and risking an electoral defeat or optimizing their chances to stay in power by retiring their old guard and introducing new blood to offer the same ideological path with new faces to an electorate that craves change either in policies or in those who will implement those policies.