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The Americas re-elect: George Washington’s ghost

John M Carey, 28 – 07 – 2009

The attempt of Latin American presidents to extend constitutional term-limits should take account of past experience, says John M Carey.

(This article was first published on 27 July 2009)

28 – 07 – 2009

In the early hours of 28 June 2009, Manuel Zelaya was removed from the Honduran presidency and deported to Costa Rica by his own military. A month on, a key issue in the unfolding Honduran crisis remains Zelaya’s ambition to change the Honduran constitution to allow himself to run for a second term.

A day after the drama in Tegucigalpa, the presidents of Colombia and the United States met at the White House. Barack Obama and Álvaro Uribe discussed the future of the US-Colombia free-trade pact, human rights, and drug policy; but looming over the conversation was the question of whether in the coming months Uribe would himself attempt to alter the Colombian constitution to allow himself to run for a third consecutive term in the 2010 elections.

As the meeting drew to a close, Obama noted that George Washington had buttressed his own reputation, and American democracy, by refusing a third term and stepping down in 1797. Obama’s message to Uribe was lost on no one. It was the same one exchanged between two of the men’s predecessors 180 years ago. For in 1829, William Henry Harrison – then the US ambassador in Bogota, who would in 1841 serve as president for one month – cited Washington’s self-restraint in a letter warning Simón Bolívar, the hero of Colombian independence, against a lifetime presidency.

Bolívar indeed resigned from office in 1830 – though he was motivated more by uprisings in neighbouring Ecuador and Venezuela than by anything ambassador Harrison said. As Uribe considers his political future, he might well look to these and other Latin American neighbours before making his choice.

Principle and practice

The most immediate example is Manuel Zelaya, whose overthrow was triggered by his attempt to hold a plebiscite to summon a constituent assembly. Zelaya’s opponents believed his goal was to draft a new charter that would permit him to remain in office – a motive Zelaya, from the enforced exile he is determined to reverse, now disavows. But whatever the intent, the perception of self-perpetuation by plebiscite was politically incendiary.

Colombia’s reform, if it does go forward, would also be put to a plebiscite. But beyond this, Uribe’s situation does not much resemble Zelaya’s. This is in part because Honduran public opinion on Zelaya was deeply divided even before his removal, whereas Uribe enjoys very high approval ratings even after seven years in office.

Furthermore, both Honduran and Colombian law outline how the constitutions themselves can be amended. But Zelaya’s attempt to summon a plebiscite by decree was clearly unconstitutional, and was opposed by both congress and the judiciary. By contrast, Colombia’s process has proceeded according to established rules, with support from congress and no objections from the courts. In contrast to Zelaya, then, Uribe appears to be on more solid footing as a would-be re-eleccionista.

The recent experiences of some states in the region are encouraging. In 1996, Brazil amended its constitution to allow immediate presidential re-election and has since experienced two successful two-term presidencies. The Dominican Republic made immediate re-election constitutional in 2002 and returned a popular incumbent for another term in 2008. Colombia’s own experience with Uribe’s first re-election, following a 2004 constitutional reform, also appears to endorse the principle of re-election.

But that principle is not absolute, and history suggests that to extend presidential re-election beyond two consecutive terms is a recipe for trouble. Despots throughout the hemisphere ignored George Washington’s example and pursued unrestricted presidencies during the 19th century. This experience led to bans on re-election, many of which were in turn abrogated in the mid-20th century by a generation of populist leaders. They included Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Perón in Argentina, and Victor Paz Estenssoro in Bolivia, all of whom were ultimately removed by military coups.

By the time democracy was restored throughout the region in the early 1990s, the only presidency with unrestricted re-election was Cuba’s. Democracy and presidential term-limits appeared to be inextricably linked.

Since then, experiments with consecutive re-election have yielded mixed results. The experience of Brazil contrasts with the corruption-plagued second term of Carlos Menem, who engineered a constitutional reform to allow his consecutive re-election to Argentina’s presidency in 1994. The Dominican Republic’s congress had second thoughts about consecutive re-election, prohibiting it once again in a constitutional amendment passed in June 2009.

The two-term limit

The most disturbing aspect of re-eleccionismo is the prospect that one politician and his appointees and acolytes can thoroughly dominate the furthest reaches of government, removing all checks on executive power. Three-term presidencies pose this threat, though it is arguable that two terms might be justified in the interest of allowing a successful president time to implement his programmes.

Alberto Fujimori’s pursuit of a third term in Peru in 2000 triggered a reaction that brought down his government, and exposed corruption throughout the congress, courts, and security apparatus. In February 2009, Hugo Chávez pushed through a referendum removing all restrictions on re-election. Chávez’s critics contend that he has already rendered checks and balances meaningless in Venezuela.

The overall record indicates that presidential re-election can work to the benefit of a polity and country, but also that less can be more and that, George Washington excepted, presidents themselves tend to lack judgment as to when enough is enough. Honduras’s ongoing tribulations might prompt President Uribe to reconsider the wisdom of pursuing a third consecutive term. But even if he concludes, quite reasonably, that Manuel Zelaya’s plight is a world away from his own, the larger lessons of re-election throughout the Americas should give him serious pause.

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