Much has been discussed about the innovations of Chile’s new constitution on different topics, and presidential power has not been left aside. Presidential reelection has been presented as another novelty of the new constitution, which has awakened discomfort about the concentration of power. In light of this, it is important to make some clarifications for informed decision making.
It is important to dispel the myth that presidential reelection does not exist in Chile: It does exist. Often, when discussing the limitations of presidential power, it is generally forgotten that we are talking about the possibility that a former president can run for office again. Reelection has two major modalities. On modality is immediate reelection, which is the one that tends to hegemonize the debate. The other modality is the alternating or deferred reelection, as we have in Chile since the return to democracy. That is when a former president can run for office again, with at least one period of alternation. Due to this provision, the Chilean presidency has alternated for four terms as follows: Bachelet-Piñera-Bachelet-Piñera. So, what is new about the constitutional proposal? Strictly speaking, the novelty is to change the reelection modality.
The constitutional proposal provides that Chile would change the reelection modality from an alternate to an immediate one. That is, that the incumbent president could run for a new term and extend his or her presidency for another four years. What are the pros and cons of alternating and immediate reelection?
One disadvantage of the immediate reelection is its association with the concentration and abuse of the presidential power. This has happened in extreme cases such as in Nicaragua and Venezuela, where reelection is not only immediate but also indefinite, which means that there are no limits to running for reelection. But in the case of Chile’s constitutional proposal, reelection would be limited to only once. Another disadvantage of this reelection mode has to do with the president relying on all the publicity and utilizing the power of the state to conduct an election campaign. This can create unequal conditions between the candidates.
In the modality of deferred reelection, candidates, whether or not they are former presidents, do not find themselves in power during a new campaign. A disadvantage of the alternate reelection is that the incumbent president cannot be tried during his presidency. As the years pass, the inertia generated in the electorate during the presidency weakens. In the face of a new election, a potential advantage for the incumbent could weaken. On the other hand, former presidents—whether they performed well or poorly—run with an advantage in a new election since they have already held the highest office.
While immediate reelection is an unequal contest, the alternate one approaches an equal opportunity game. So why is reelection being considered at all?
Let us now judge from the point of view of profit maximization in politics by means of two components, supply and demand. Presidents do not get reelected just because of the existence of a norm. That’s the case for Frei Ruiz-Tagle. The fact is that the main decision makers are, on the one hand, the coalitions, and on the other hand —and most importantly— the electorate that will decide at the polls.
In the case of Chile, the Bachelet-Piñera formula shows that the electorate elected them over other options. Piñera’s first government did not end with a high approval. However, the citizens (who did not abstain) elected him again. The most surprising of all is that, if we maintain this type of reelection (which we do not assume as such), we could have another term of Sebastián Piñera and another of Michelle Bachelet. A scenario that could not be further from the demands of decentralizing power and renewing politics.
Why would it be a mistake not to approve immediate reelection?
Given the second presidential terms of Bachelet and Piñera, the attrition of politics, and the scant accountability mechanisms of governments, we should seriously consider immediate reelection. Chile has experienced over the years an attrition of political renewal and political coalitions have failed to position new political leaders.
One measure to address this reality is that if a president manages to finish a term with good results and acceptance, both from the electorate and from his coalition, he or she can continue running the executive. Consider that a 4-year term is short to install a government program, which is an additional ingredient to the difficulty of implementing a long-term program. Another alternative that comes into play is a longer period of government. However, we believe in the oxygenation provided by the “test” of elections between short periods. Furthermore, once a successful mandate is concluded, the costs of dismantling the public administration are avoided, even more so if this president returns a period later. Moreover, under these circumstances, why should a president waste such political capital?
On the other hand, if a president leaves office with low approval ratings or weak party backing, he or she may also be exposed to an electoral challenge and be punished with an opposing vote. An electoral defeat can be lethal for a politician’s future career, unlike in deferred elections. A deferred reelection implies that the administration and a government program will be discontinued when the president returns to power anyway.
The call is therefore to reveal the positions: first, presidential reelection exists in Chile. Accepting this, it is better to weigh the modalities of both immediate and deferred, according to the country’s political reality. For short periods between oppositions, it is best to take advantage of these presidents in the long term, benefiting both the state administration and politics itself, and giving more time for the development of new leadership. The construction of political capital is long term. When it exists, it is best to take advantage of it, as long as there is the consent of the citizenry, which can be expressed at the ballot box through presidential reelection.
*This column is based on a chapter of the book Presidencialismo. Reflexiones para el debate constitucional en Chile. Fondo de Cultura Económica/ Ediciones UC Temuco.
Translated from Spanish by Ricardo Aceves