As incumbent president of the Dominican Republic Danilo Medina tries to find a way to run for a third presidential term this coming year, his attempt is a reminder of a long-term trend that has plagued Latin American countries: elected executives amending the constitution to remain in power for at least one more term—or in some cases indefinitely.
Presidential candidates often come into power promising to improve democracy or to change politics as they were; but once sworn in, all-too-often they become intoxicated with the power and swept up in the normal ways of doing business. And all-too-often, perhaps because they get caught up in the pomp and circumstance or they want to maintain their immunity from prosecution for corruption, they attempt to alter their country’s constitution to stay there. Changing term limits has historically sparked protests and controversy, and yet, the trend continues.
The list of term-extending executives is long (and historical), some successful some not, but all generating controversy. Here are some recent examples, starting with the latest example, Danilo Medina:
Danilo Medina (Dominican Republic), 2012 – seeking a second re-election
Danilo Medina, a member of Partido de la Liberación Dominicana, has been the president of Dominican Republic since 2012. He is actively seeking to find avenues that would allow him to seek re-election in the coming year. Currently, the country’s constitution allows the president to hold office for two consecutive four-year terms and does not allow them to run again in any future presidential elections.
Medina is attempting to change these limits and extend his term by challenging the constitutional provision in court. In late February, Fredermido Ferreras Díaz, a member of the minority Partido Reformista Social Cristiano, requested the Constitutional Tribunal to annul the clause, arguing that it violates the President’s political rights. By attempting to remove the term limit judicially, Medina would bypass the requirement to have Congress pass a constitutional amendment, something that many are trying to block. According to a Gallup survey, 68.3 percent of the population opposes amending the Constitution to allow the president to run again in the next election. Unfortunately, when it comes to staying in the presidential palace for another turn, the lack of public support doesn’t seem to matter much. (See Evo Morales, Bolivia or Hugo Chavez, Venezuela).
Juan Orlando Hernández (Honduras), 2014-?
Juan Orlando Hernández assumed office in 2014 after winning the general election in 2013. Despite the Honduran Constitution limiting presidential terms to a single four-year period, Hernández announced that he would seek re-election in 2017.
The year before Hernández’s re-election campaign, Honduran courts (packed with Hernádez supporters) voided the single-term limit provision, allowing Hernández to extend his presidency to this day, despite its disputed legality. Many international observers deemed Hernández’s 2018 re-election as fraudulent and yet despite the dubious constitutional basis for his re-election and questions over the balloting, Hernández remains ensconced in the presidential palace, though now facing widespread popular protests.
Horacio Cartes (Paraguay), 2013-2018
A member of the right-wing political party, Partido Colorado, Horacio Cartes served as president of Paraguay for five years. He was elected in 2013 with 45.80 percent of the vote. In early 2016 and 2017, Cartes and his allies in Congress attempted to pass an amendment to the Paraguayan Constitution that would permit the president to run for re-election. Previously, the president was only allowed to serve a single five-year term.
In March of 2017, a series of protests erupted after pro-Cartes legislators voted in favor of the amendment in a closed session, rather than on the Senate floor. Protesters set fire to the Congress building, causing multiple injuries and one reported death. Following the protests, President Cartes resigned from any possible candidacy for a second presidential term. On April 26, 2017, the proposed constitutional amendment was formally rejected by Paraguay’s lower house of congress.
Rafael Correa (Ecuador), 2007-2017
Correa served as president of Ecuador for ten years due to his successful re-election in 2009 and 2013. Correa had previously removed the constitutional limits on two terms in 2015, but they were re-installed in 2018, after a series of scandals and protest. Correa currently resides in Belgium.
Evo Morales (Bolivia), 2006+
Evo Morales has been the president of Bolivia since 2006 and has continuously defied the country’s term limits. Morales rose to power in 2005 as a member of the left-wing socialist party: the Movement for Socialism Party, commonly known as the MAS, with 54 percent of the vote. In 2009, Morales drafted and was able to pass a new constitution that allowed him to run for a second five-year term, overruling single term limits under the previous constitution. The new constitution also allowed Morales to dissolve Congress.
Since his first term preceded the new constitution, it was decided in 2013 that Morales should be allowed to run for a third term, which would technically count as his second term under the new constitution. In 2016, in a popular referendum on whether his third terms should count as… well, his third term, voters rejected Morales’ proposals to amend the constitution to let him seek another five-year term. Not content with the results of the referendum, he took his claim to court, where the pro-Morales court ruled he could run on the grounds that barring him from doing so would violate his human rights—a decision questioned by a majority of the human rights groups in the hemisphere.
Recently, Morales launched a campaign for his fourth presidential term. In December 2018, the Supreme Electoral Court allowed for the constitutional court to remove all term limits, which legally allow Morales to run for his fourth term, prompting protests in Bolivia.
Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), 1999-2013
Hugo Chávez served as president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013.
In 1999, a new constitution written by a pro-Chavez constituent assembly established a two-term, six-year limit. But in 2009, Chávez convened a popular referendum (after a previous one intended to lift term limits just for himself failed) that abolished term limits for all elected positions. The referendum allowed Chávez to hold power in Venezuela despite opposition. After being elected for a fourth time in 2012, Chavez died in 2013 and Nicolás Maduro, then Vice-president of Venezuela and Chávez’s handpicked successor, ran in a second election barely squeezing out a victory against Hernrique Capriles, in what many considered an unfair election. Maduro was re-elected in May 2018 in an election broadly condemned by the international community as illegitimate.
Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), 1985-1990 and 2007 to ?
Daniel Ortega has served as president of Nicaragua for most of the past four decades. With help from his solid bloc of Sandinistas congress (which a pro-Sandinista electoral commission helped secure), Ortega has managed to retain power through multiple constitutional amendments allowing him to continue to run for re-election.
In 2010, the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court lifted a ban on consecutive presidential re-election, allowing Ortega to run again in 2011. During that election, his opponents accused him of electoral fraud. Even so, Ortega won the election with approximately 62.69 percent of the vote. In 2014, Congress changed the constitution to lift term limits, allowing Ortega to run for office indefinitely. Despite protests demanding his resignation, Ortega and his wife—the vice president—maintain their bloody grip on political power in Nicaragua with no end in sight.
Can it stop?
Medina’s controversial re-election bid is not an isolated phenomenon in Latin America. In fact, it has become all-too-common a political phenomenon in the region, affecting governments of both the left and the right (former President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia tried it in 2009 but was overruled by the country’s Constitutional Court, which he obeyed.) There is clearly precedent for such action across the region, with each example offering a new twist on how to stay in power (referenda, a new referendum, a court ruling, packing the constitutional court). Throughout all these examples, what remains clear is that these attempts to extend term limits are personally motivated—often violating popular opinion let alone the letter of law–and nothing more than attempts to retain political control.
Presidents who have risen to power through legal, democratic means have now chosen to maintain power in autocratic and undemocratic ways, slowly eroding the very democracies they have been elected to protect, despite protests and opposition from their constituents.
It is time for the international community to pay attention and for organizations like the Organization of American States (OAS) to speak out and take action. The tragic situations in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Honduras were predictable and stem in large part from the bending of institutions and constitutions to consolidate power and extend term limits. We should recognize that just getting a second previously prohibited presidential turn in power is not just like another potato chip; those executives bending laws and defying popular opinion to remain in power won’t stop until they’ve finished the bag.