Unbeatable incumbents

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 17, 2014


Juan Manuel Santos’ re-election win confirmed a dominant trend in Latin American politics. Incumbent presidents always win when they run for re-election. The institutional advantages enjoyed by incumbents makes it an uphill battle for challengers. Santos’ victory brings good news for incumbent presidents Dilma Rousseff and Evo Morales who will be seeking re-election in Brazil and Bolivia, respectively, later this year.

Since immediate presidential re-election was introduced in Argentina in the mid-1990s, only one incumbent president has lost a re-election bid. In 2004, Dominican Republic President Hipólito Mejía (2000-2004) was defeated by former president Leonel Fernández (1996-2000). On all other occasions, the incumbent has prevailed.


Having presidents staying in power for more than one term has positive and negative consequences. Among the positive aspects, continuity in economic and social policies has allowed many countries to make significant progress in poverty reduction and economic development. Brazilian leaders Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2002-2010) presided over the best 16 years, in terms of democratic consolidation and economic growth, in Brazil’s history. Under Rafael Correa — in power since 2007 — Ecuador has enjoyed more political stability than in the past 100 years. In Bolivia, Morales already has the record of the longest-serving president — democratic or otherwise — in the nation’s history. In Argentina, when she steps down next year, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will be the second democratically-elected president to have completed two consecutive terms in office. Finally, in Colombia, with his victory, Juan Manuel Santos will be the second consecutive two-term president. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez (1998-2013) was already the longest-serving democratically-elected president when he died. Reducing rotation in the presidential chair has undoubtedly been a positive consequence of the institutional reform that has allowed immediate re-election in several Latin American countries.


Re-election provisions have also had negative consequences. Politics has become more personalized. It might be the case that the rise of personal politics is the result — not the cause — of a weakening party system. People increasingly vote for individuals more than for party platforms. As leaders have stayed in power longer, parties have found it more difficult to institutionalize and regain their footing as the main institutions to channel popular representation. Also, as presidents have stayed in power longer, power has become more concentrated. True, this has not happened everywhere. Presidents in Brazil have not grown more powerful, as in Venezuela or Ecuador. Yet, because they have risen in times of institutional weakness in several countries, long-serving presidents can more easily replace weak and discredited institutions with personal or political allies or concentrate power in their own hands with institutional changes (that often include new constitutions). The cases of Chávez (1998-2013) in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega (in power since 2006) in Nicaragua represent the most dramatic examples of concentration of power that has further weakened already feeble democratic institutions.


In Colombia, the constitutional reform that allowed for immediate presidential re-election was, as in several other countries, a custom-made reform to favour then-president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). Since Uribe failed to secure a new reform that would allow him to run for a third term, the institution he left in place has now allowed his predecessor — a former ally turned his main political rival — to benefit from securing a second term in office. Something similar happened in Brazil, where the constitutional reform that allowed Cardoso to run for re-election in 1998 allowed Lula to run for a second term in 2006 and will soon allow Rousseff (from the same party as Lula) to seek her own second term. In other countries, the reform has only applied to one president — as in Ecuador or Bolivia — or to presidents from the same coalition — as in Venezuela. Thus, in those countries, the long-term consequences in terms of alternation in power remain to be seen.


Because Latin American countries have historically been presidentialist, the decision to allow immediate re-election has not been free from controversy. In the US, where the presidential system has more checks and balances, incumbents do lose (though there have historically been more two-termers than one-term presidents). In Latin America, where presidential power has fewer institutional constraints and there are fewer and weaker checks-and-balance procedures, incumbents are more difficult to defeat.


In 2004, Dominican President Hipólito Mejía lost his re-election bid amid a banking and financial scandal. Before that, only one president lost a re-election bid in recent memory. Incumbent Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega lost the election in 1990, but that contest was the first truly democratic election in that country, as Ortega had come into power in the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution. The 1984 election, when Ortega won re-election, was held during the counter-revolutionary war and was not competitive.


With his re-election, Santos confirms the electoral advantage enjoyed by incumbent presidents in Latin America. In the coming months, Morales and Rouseff will also run for re-election. If history has any predictive power, they will likely win re-election and further consolidate the incumbent advantage that exists in presidential elections in Latin America.