Fifty years ago, Héctor J. Cámpora won the Argentine presidential elections under the proclamation “Cámpora to the government, Perón to power”. Indeed, after his electoral triumph in March, leading the Justicialist Liberation Front (FREJULI), he resigned in July so that Juan D. Perón could be a candidate in the September elections of the same year, which returned him to the presidency after having been ousted from power by a coup d’état 18 years earlier.
In Spain, two years later, in November 1975, the Franco regime, which was reluctant to leave power, referred to the fact that everything had been “tied up and well tied up” thanks to the supposed continuity that the new monarch would guarantee. However, that political class collapsed in a matter of months like a house of cards.
For decades, in Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) devised a form of continuity under the figure of the “tapado” (covered-up). A candidacy conceived by the top leadership of the political regime to perpetuate himself in power through an unprecedented scheme of continuity with presidential figures who played perfectly the game of the establishment.
The drive to maintain power vicariously is an old issue that is present in politics even when it adopts democratic forms of government in which there is a minimum of assured competition. In most cases, it is a matter of achieving the continuity of a political project that is usually linked to a caudillo who claims to respect the formality of the non-reelection clause, but who ends up having control of the situation behind the scenes.
In Latin America, in the last two decades, the number of scenarios in which similar circumstances have occurred affected half of its countries. In Argentina, Néstor Kirchner sponsored Cristina Fernández; in Brazil, Lula da Silva did it with Dilma Rousseff; in Colombia, Álvaro Uribe with Juan Manuel Santos; in Ecuador, Rafael Correa with Lenin Moreno; in Bolivia, Evo Morales with Luís Arce; in Paraguay the presidents of the Colorado Party have done it with their co-militants. It is true that in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia the foreseen continuity did not take place, with the elected ones having their own program that even led to the rupture with the patriarchs, but the signal sent to the electorate was unequivocal.
However, there are situations in which the substitute exercise entails the coverage of a physical or legal incapacity for the action of power. The protagonist who is unable to carry it out designates on his deathbed the successor (Hugo Chávez did it with Nicolás Maduro) or it is done in the prolegomena of the electoral campaign of the one who cannot compete in it (these are the cases of Cristina Fernández and Alberto Fernández in Argentina; Vladimir Cerrón and Pedro Castillo in Peru; Mel Zelaya and Xiomara Castro in Honduras).
This propensity to hold political power in the shadows constitutes a brake on the development of democracy in its aspect of real and effective competition between different options. By persevering with actors who instrumentalize others to achieve their objectives, endogamy is guaranteed. It also hinders alternation and consolidates the idea of the existence of an entrenched elite that does everything possible to remain in power. Finally, it contributes to the deinstitutionalization of politics by introducing the use of informal practices or fraudulent interpretations of existing rules.
Current political events in Latin America offer examples of this vicarious exercise of power that conceals a spurious practice of open competition in Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Mexico. These are different cases which, nevertheless, involve elements of those observed above that reinforce the perversion of the game being played.
The Brazilian Supreme Electoral Court has disqualified Jair Bolsonaro until 2030, so that he cannot be a candidate until then, but this has brought with it the immediate proposal that his wife Michelle should be the next candidate. In the Ecuadorian presidential elections of August 20, Rafael Correa, also disqualified from running, has bet on the presidential candidacy of Luisa González of the Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana who, after denouncing the treason committed in her opinion by Lenin Moreno, has stated that Rafael Correa “will be one of his main advisors [but] would never offer him a pardon”.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele and his vice president have announced that they will resign in December so that, according to their particular criteria, they can run as “new” candidates in the 2024 elections. Finally, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in a skillful exercise of changing the narrative in the movement he leads, has eliminated from Mexican politics the old and tendentious practice of the “tapado”, replacing it with that of “corcholatas” (as the ruling party candidates are known). In this way, he tries to convince the electorate that the current moment of the country is marked by the competition between the different candidacies in a process in which he has the rules, trying to ensure, on the other hand, that his shadow will continue to be present in the future.
These are different cases that have a common denominator: the maintenance of power in the shadows at all costs by a certain elite through vicarious mechanisms, annulling the possibilities of other political forces, and avoiding any control and accountability mechanism.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva