QUITO — Ecuador's parliament voted earlier this month to amend the constitution and end presidential term limits, a drastic step that critics warn is terrible for democracy. Voters were told that the move would not benefit current President Rafael Correa because he has pledged not to stand for reelection in 2017, but he was the one to mobilize the effort, and who's to say he wouldn't take four years off and then run again.
Sensing that Correa is being disingenuous, voters took to the streets in mass protests, which police and soldiers violently repressed. The only other Latin American countries with provisions eliminating presidential term limits are Venezuela and Nicaragua, both ruled by authoritarian, discretionary and kleptocratic governments.
One Ecuadoran opposition leader complained that legislators from his area were prevented from weighing in on the debate, and explained that his objections go beyond the issue of whether President Correa runs for the presidency in 2017. "The only important thing here," he said, "is to defend the principle of democratic alternation, whose importance is illustrated in the experience of many generations across Latin America."
The amendment in Ecuador bucks the Latin American trend to block indefinite reelection of leaders who might be inclined to remain in power for good. Colombia provided the most recent case, when its parliament absolutely prohibited reelection, while the same applies in Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and Paraguay. A similar initiative was recently introduced in Brazil's congress.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos greeting Rafael Correa in Cali, Colombia, on Dec. 15 — Photo: Colombia's Presidency/Xinhua/ZUMA
Correa's intentions are unclear, and perhaps that's just his intention. He observed, rather glibly, that parliament had "found it hard" to accept that he would not be a candidate in 2017. The president predicted that his party would nevertheless win the 2017 presidential elections, which would assure the continuation of the populist project he calls Citizens Revolution. It is Ecuador's version of Venzeuela's 21st Century Socialism brand.
As regional analyst Carlos Malamud recently asked, how are we to interpret Correa's comments? Are they tactical, a prudent response at a time when falling commodities prices are threatening his government and complicating its future? Or do they express a legitimate desire to retire from politics for good?
Given his nature, we can practically rule out a permanent political break. Correa considers the Citizens Revolution his own creation, much too precious to be left in anyone else's hands. Unfortunately, beyond the expectations his declarations are meant to shape, it seems that personal rule will once more prevail over institutions in Ecuador.
Being — and staying — in power is a constant of populist regimes and dictatorships. Bolivia is taking similar steps through a referendum that could allow a second reelection. This clearly will benefit the sitting president, Evo Morales, who would remain 15 years in power in addition to the four years that were illegally discounted when he was re-elected in December 2014. The reason, they stated in Bolivia, was that the first presidential years were not in the new Plurinational State of Bolivia but in the old constitutional regime. Call it another take on democracy!