By Maxwell Cameron*
A participant in a march in Venezuela holds up the country’s constitution. / TeleSURtv / Flickr / Creative Commons
Recent events in Paraguay and Venezuela raise yet again the issue of whether political leaders are capable of deliberating and acting in ways that show an appreciation for constitutional essentials, or whether they choose instead to perform their roles and offices in ways that continuously test constitutional principles and, over time, contribute to their erosion. The principles of re-election and term limits are important in every presidential democracy, the product of historical circumstance. In the case of Paraguay, a dictatorship under strongman Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989, sensitivity to the idea of a president serving for too long is strong. Venezuela’s elimination of term limits a few years ago set a dangerous precedent. Other constitutions limit incumbents to one term (Mexico, Paraguay) or two terms (United States, Colombia); in some constitutions, presidents cannot be re-elected immediately but can run later after a term has elapsed (Peru, Uruguay).
- More important than the constitutionality of term limits is that the re-election issue be settled in a way that commands the assent of all parties – within a certain spirit of constitutionalism. Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes’s error was to think that he could change the constitution by means that violated this spirit, even if the public would arguably support a modification of the re-election rule if pursued in the right way. (Since the fall of Stroessner, the Partido Colorado, the pillar of his rule, has won every election except in 2008, when Catholic priest Fernando Lugo was elected. Lugo was deposed in 2012.) The President of the Senate, Roberto Acevedo, opposed the change and was outraged by the way it was adopted: the Senate voted in a special session held behind closed doors. In that session, 25 Senators approved the measure, bypassing the opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico.
The showdown in Venezuela over President Maduro’s effort to shut down the congress was another undemocratic blunder. A decision by the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), Venezuela’s supreme court, to arrogate legislative functions to itself or delegate them to other branches or agencies was unconstitutional. (The TSJ has the power only to declare a law invalid or that another branch of government is operating outside the law.) When the Fiscal General de la República, Venezuela’s equivalent of attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz argued that the TSJ’s decision was unconstitutional, she gave herself political cover by expressing loyalty to the Constitution of 1999 – the legitimacy of which has long been undermined by the fact that it is a document made to measure for chavismo. As a result of this and significant domestic and international pressure, the government backed down – a rare event. The attorney general’s insistence that the constitution not be violated indicates that a spirit of constitutionalism among chavistas is not completely dead, but it also shows that it remains a mechanism for coordinating the actions of agents within the government. Her position also raises the possibility of a split between constitutionalists and hardline militarists within the regime.
Democracy is not just a system of rules. It requires politicians to acknowledge and respect the essential constitutional agreements that have to underpin the struggle for power in a self-governing community. The crises in Paraguay and Venezuela both forewarn of the dangers of excessive partisanship and the risks of playing fast and loose with constitutional rules. Something similar seems to be playing out in Ecuador, where allegations of fraud have been made by the opposition. If spurious, they are condemnable; if supported by evidence, they are deeply disturbing. Either way, they reflect mistrust in institutions after a decade of rule by Rafael Correa (Likewise, U.S. Senate Republicans’ threats to use of the “nuclear option” to confirm Judge Gorsuch threatens to deepen the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court.) The cost of the failure of politicians and citizens to cultivate a spirit of constitutionalism is very heavy. In Paraguay, it has resulted in deadly protests and resignations by top officials; in Venezuela it has taken the country to the brink of civil war; in Ecuador, there is a real prospect of debilitating governance problems as Lenín Moreno of Alianza PAIS takes office; and in the United States we are starting to see the kinds of governance problems that have long been associated with the “politicized states” (to use Douglas Chalmers’s phrase) of Latin America.
April 5, 2017
* Maxwell A. Cameron is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia.
Posted by clalsstaff on April 5, 2017
From local citizen initiatives to national referenda, mechanisms of direct political participation have been spreading with astonishing vigor throughout Latin America in recent years. Some of these mechanisms are new and unprecedented in the way they involve citizens in politics, such as frequently touted participatory budgeting systems at the municipal level in numerous countries. Other initiatives, such as the National Policy Conferences that consult the citizenry regarding an array of issues in Brazil, are less widely known. In most Andean countries and to some extent elsewhere, these forms of participation often emerge where established representative institutions, such as party systems, have collapsed, or where legislatures have fallen into disrepute. Yet they also proliferate alongside strong parties, legislatures, and interest associations, as we see in Brazil and Uruguay.
A recent CLALS-sponsored book* examines these new forms of participation and analyzes when they promote, and when not, the consolidation and deepening of representative institutions. The participatory innovations vary along a number of key dimensions, including how they interact with political parties and established institutions, their focus on collective versus individual rights and, perhaps most importantly, their autonomy from political and economic elites. These differences and their implications are analyzed in detail in case studies on seven Latin American countries: Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.
When new forms of political participation emerge spontaneously and independently – as a natural reaction to an unfulfilled need at a local or national level – their voices are authentic and tend to enhance democratic rule. Brazil’s National Policy Conferences and Uruguay’s referenda to enhance accountability are examples of the incorporation of new voices in policy formulation – to the benefit of the constituencies driving them and the nation as a whole. We also find instances where participation has exacerbated and reinforced longstanding patterns of clientelism (including in Mexico and Brazil), and autocratic leaders have sought to create or capture such voices to bypass representative institutions (including in Nicaragua and Venezuela). A valuable lesson of this research, however, is that, once in place, these spaces may become increasingly autonomous. Venezuela’s community councils are an important case to watch: created to reinforce the Chavista project as defined by the Casa Rosada, they may take on a life of their own when the politicians who sponsored them relinquish their positions of power or pass away.
* New Institutions of Participatory Democracy: Voice and Consequence, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012, resulted from a multi-year project co-organized by CLALS and the University of British Columbia’s Andean Democracy Research Network. More information on the project can be found here . (The volume has also been published in Spanish by FLACSO-Mexico, Nuevas instituciones de democracia participativa en América Latina: la voz y sus consecuencias)
Posted by clalsstaff on January 16, 2013
Photo: Venezuela elections 2012 | by World Development Movement | Flickr | Creative Commons
Polls in anticipation of Venezuela’s presidential election on October 7 yield, not surprisingly, wildly different results. A survey by Datanálisis puts President Chávez ahead of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by nearly 15 points, and Consultores 21 predicts a much tighter race and places Capriles on top with just a narrow margin. Both Chávez and Capriles have declared that they have the support of the majority of Venezuelans. Chávez insists that he needs to complete his “Bolivarian Revolution.” Capriles has vowed to tackle everyday issues, such as rising crime and violence, and has pledged to liberalize currency controls and promote investment in agriculture. Both predict dire consequences if they lose. Chávez contends that “civil war” will break out, and Capriles insists that a Chávez victory would take Venezuela one step closer to becoming “another Cuba.”
Polling data are notoriously unreliable wherever elections are not strictly about choosing a government but, to some citizens, are perceived as involving a change in the underlying regime. For many Venezuelans, both pro- and anti-Chavista, the balloting in October is precisely about regime continuity or change. The surveys undoubtedly reflect that this may indeed be a transcendent election in Venezuela. This unreliability further complicates analysis of what happens after the election: how both sides would respond to a razor-thin margin of victory or to a decisive verdict. In the latter circumstance, the losing parties would seem to have no option but to relent, but the challenge would be no less daunting if Capriles wins and has to effect a smooth transition.
The Obama Administration, for its part, has tried to keep its distance from the Chávez government – except for the occasional counternarcotics cooperation – and overall has avoided interference in the electoral process. But persistent tensions in the relationship make it hard for Washington to assert neutrality in the elections. Capriles, in an interview with the Miami Herald, criticized the Obama administration for caring little about Latin America, saying “I think the bureaucracy ate him up.” Capriles urged the U.S. to establish a “relationship of equals” with Latin American nations. Such criticism most likely reflects a desire by Capriles to appear independent of Washington, but should he find himself in the Presidency, it may take on a life of its own – and he may join most of the region’s leaders in regretting U.S. aloofness toward the region.
Posted by clalsstaff on September 26, 2012