Latin American presidentialism is in Crisis

In the 1960s and 1970s, military-led coups d’état were recurrent in Latin America. In the first two decades of the 21st century, however, interruptions of presidential mandates have developed other characteristics. Of the fourteen interruptions, only two were coups d’état and the rest were resignations or dismissals carried out by parliaments. Although these differences are substantial, since a regime headed by the military is not the same as one headed by civilians, the interruption of a presidential mandate always generates crises in political systems regardless of the form.

Between 2000 and 2020, several Latin American countries experienced crises derived from the rigidity of presidentialism. In this period there were two successful coups d’état -Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador (2000) and Manuel Celaya in Honduras (2009)- and one failed one -Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (2002)-.

In addition, there were five impeachments through parliaments. In 2000 Alberto Fujimori initially resigned from abroad, but the Peruvian Congress ended up officially removing him from office. In 2005 Lucio Gutiérrez was removed from office in the midst of a deep economic crisis. And later, in 2012 Fernando Lugo was impeached in Paraguay and in 2016 Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, in both cases as a result of confrontation between factions supporting their governments and those against. The last president to be removed from office by a Congress was Martín Vizcarra in Peru at the end of 2020, a situation that generated rejection from part of the citizenry.

Finally, six presidents resigned from office over the last 20 years. Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina in 2001, while in Bolivia Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada resigned in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005, all three in the midst of serious economic and political crises. Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala in 2015 and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru in 2018 due to corruption allegations. And the last Evo Morales in 2019 due to accusations of electoral fraud. The 2019 presidential crisis in Venezuela, around the legitimacy and recognition of two presidents, Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro, requires a separate classification, but it is part of the same set of critical events of presidentialism’s in the region.

The weaknesses of presidentialism

The main problem of Latin American presidentialism is that its design is rigid, i.e., government terms are fixed, unlike parliamentary systems, and it centers the capacities of governmental action in a unitary figure: the holder of the executive power. The president is head of government and therefore of public administration, but he is also head of state, and consequently supreme representative of a political community. This dual function creates problems if the other powers are not autonomous and independent.

Other factors that weaken presidentialism are a poorly institutionalized and highly fragmented party system and a weak internalization of the rule of law, which generates impunity and consequently distrust in the political system as a whole, something evident in Latin America, where systematically violating the law has very low costs and very high benefits, especially for the elites.

In short, in the presidential systems of Latin American countries -a bad copy of the U.S. model- government crises generally turn into system crises. And this frequently ends with a new presidential impeachment or resignation.

The return of populist leadership

As if the aforementioned deficiencies were not enough to shake political systems, Latin American presidential systems have another risk factor: the presidents themselves. In our region, those who aspire to the presidency usually present themselves in each campaign before public opinion and the electorate as the incarnation of the solution to all social problems. And when situations worsen, this logic acquires a “Caesarist” nuance in the Gramscian sense.

As the Chilean writer Ariel Peralta Pizzarro pointed out in 1939, Caesarism is that arbitrary and personality-centered solution that is presented as necessary in the face of the inability of collective actors to reach plural agreements to find profound solutions. This logic has remained throughout time and emerges with force when political systems fail to process the demands of the social system.

Faced with the problems of presidentialism, charismatic leaderships with movementist bases have re-emerged in Latin America, replacing parties and with populist tendencies. These leaders foster a relationship of domination that tries to eliminate mediations in order to create a patrimonialist and personalistic treatment.

In Colombia, Alvaro Uribe promoted a reform in 2004 that allowed him to be reelected immediately, while in Ecuador, Rafael Correa promoted a new constitution in 2008 that allowed him to be reelected the following year. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, already during his second term and with a new constitution, manipulated the judiciary to favor his third reelection, which resulted in a crisis of the system that ended with his resignation in 2019. In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele in February 2020 took over the Legislative Assembly with the support of a military and police sector to intimidate congressmen to support one of his policies. In Argentina, Cristina Fernandez rules over the incumbent president and probably did so also during the second term of her husband Nestor Kirchner. In Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, govern with proto-authoritarian logics, accept the rules of democracy, but do their best not to be guided by its principles. While Nicolás Maduro turned Venezuela into an authoritarian regime.

The democratization processes of the last decades promoted reforms to reduce the power of the executives. Legislative controls over cabinets were increased, mechanisms for impeachment were redesigned or autonomous constitutional bodies were created to control the policies and actions of governments. In some cases, the separation of powers was expanded, as in the constitutions of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. Paradoxically, however, in most of the countries the election systems were also strengthened by incorporating the second round of elections and allowing reelection, and the powers of the executive to legislate were also increased. These logics created hybrid and institutionally weak presidentialism’s.

Presidentialism operates in a context of a Latin American citizenry with a weak democratic spirit that favors authoritarian slippage. As long as a democratic culture is not fostered, our societies will continue to trust that a single person can magically solve all their problems.

Translation from Spanish by Destiny Harrison-Griffin

Photo by Cancillería Ecuador on

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