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Presidencies under tutelage, between charisma and legal legitimacy

Charismatic leaders tend to surpass their governments and become engines of political projects, while those who assume power by legal means face the challenge of creating an aura of their own.

Charisma is an individual trait of people that cannot be passed on or inherited, not even from a president to his or her dauphin. However, recently, it has been seen that a contender can win elections if a more popular character supports him. In this way, political power can be deposited in two people, generating governance problems.

On the one hand, whoever occupies the presidency has legal legitimacy and, in addition to this, the popular support of having been elected. On the other hand, the leadership of the former leader is maintained, which, as Max Weber would say, is based on charisma, which endows him with a legitimacy that does not emanate from the ballot box.

This situation, where two leaders coexist, tends to dispute since one of the leaders tends to rise above the other. Although, to respect the democratic order, the one who has been chosen by voters should predominate. There are many examples in Latin America where the head of state and a character with the capacity to influence governmental decision-making has resulted in polarization and ungovernability.

South America has witnessed these cases, mainly. The most notorious has been the dispute between former president Evo Morales and the current president Luis Arce, both MAS militants. After the political-electoral crisis of 2020, when Morales began to organize the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) around himself, criticisms toward his co-religionists also began. In turn, Arce started a battle of declarations and positioned himself in this internal battle that has generated great political instability in the country.

In Argentina, a similar situation arose in the previous government period between the chief executive Alberto Fernandez and the vice-presidency occupied by Cristina Fernandez. The lack of charisma of the former and the strong leadership of the latter evidenced, a few months into the new government, the duplicity of power that ended in a total fracture.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, who governed between 2003 and 2011 and enjoyed strong popular support, paved the way for the country to have its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded him in power. Rousseff is not a particularly charismatic person, but it was Lula’s political brand and the results of the government that allowed her to achieve power. However, when the investigations for the Odebrecht and Lava Jato cases broke out, the president appointed Lula as minister of the Civil House to protect him, and then, considering that he could hurt Dilma’s administration, he resigned from the post.

In the Andean region, in Ecuador, Rafael Correa governed under the brand of the Citizen Revolution (2007-2017); his administration was the first case of what is called techno-populism, characters that have nationalist and polarizing rhetoric but in the economic field rely on fiscal discipline measures and technical profiles.

Correa attempted a fourth term, after his Alianza-País Party approved a bill for indefinite reelection. Its approval generated controversy and, in order to avoid a crisis that would diminish his image, he opted for Lenin Moreno, his vice-president. Moreno won the elections and quickly broke with his predecessor, which generated a dispute with the former president who ended up dividing the party. This was a determining factor for the victory of Guillermo Lasso in the following elections.

Another case is Panama. Former president Ricardo Martinelli was seeking the presidency of the country; however, an investigation for money laundering and his asylum in Nicaragua prevented him from running. Then a profile close to him, José Raúl Mulino, was appointed as his substitute and won the presidency. Although Mulino did not have strong popular support, by becoming the standard-bearer of Martinelli, he managed to channel sympathy. After Mulino’s victory, the question that arises is whether the president will manage to distance himself from the former president or will power remain in the hands of two people.

The most recent case is that of Mexico, where the Morena Party won the presidency again with Claudia Sheinbaum, who will be the first woman to govern the country. López Obrador ends his administration with an approval rating of 60% and was the driving force behind Sheinbaum’s campaign since the president-elect does not have the traction or the strength of López Obrador.

Now, the main doubt is whether there will be a rupture between the president and president-elect or whether the AMLO brand will be the repository of popular power. Tension has escalated these days due to the judicial reform initiative, which seeks to have ministers and magistrates elected by popular vote, as in the Bolivian system. While the executive is pushing for the reform to be approved in September, one month before the end of her six-year term, the president-elect says that there will be dialogue and analysis. Both positions have only caused the peso to depreciate.

Therefore, it can be corroborated that presidencies under tutelage generally generate conflicts to demonstrate who holds power. In some cases, the successor ends up breaking with his predecessor and defies the figure of tutelage that was believed to be pre-established. In other cases, the presence of the charismatic leader is maintained as a mark of the next government and continuity of the political project, and the figure of the president serves to make victory viable through votes.

In short, presidencies under tutelage are a phenomenon that can be associated, although not always, with caudillismo or populism. Charismatic leaders tend to surpass their governments and become engines of political projects; while those who assume power by legal means, but do not have the trait of charisma, face the challenge of creating an aura of their own, in some cases to maintain or break ties with the original project, which can generate disputes within the political movement.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Political scientist from UNAM with a diploma in journalism from the Carlos Septién School of Journalism.


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