Democracy, in its liberal democratic manifestation of free and fair elections, the guarantee of civil liberties, and the protection of minorities is under threat in many parts of the world. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is only the most obvious manifestation of the fragility of liberal democracy. There are reports that human rights violations, corruption, racism, and discrimination persist across Europe. A recent report by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe raises concerns about the damage caused to democracies by new populist movements and parties given their predisposition to undermine human rights and the protection of minorities. Most Latin American countries, which were under authoritarian rule from the 1960s until the early to mid-1980s, have particularly fragile democracies. Once again, the Latin American experience offers some important insights into the world-wide erosion of democratic practices.
Latin America and Continuismo
While Latin America appears to have finally escaped its cycle of alternating authoritarian and democratic regimes, most countries face substantial democratic deficits. One of these shortfalls is continuismo, the practice of leaders staying in office beyond the period allowed by law. There are a long list of manipulations by which this feat is accomplished, ranging from changing constitutional provisions restricting re-election, gaining public approval by holding plebiscites, carrying out internal coups, and manipulating a weak successor candidates to conceal continued rule behind the scenes. Continuismo’s most recent manifestation occurred with the ruling of the Bolvia’s Constitutional Court allowing President Evo Morales to stand for a fourth consecutive term in office in 2019—a manoeuvre backed by Morales and his supporters despite the fact that 51 percent of the population had voted in February 2016 to maintain term limits. Continuismo is a troubling democratic deficit because it has usually signalled the rise of discretionary, personalistic, and authoritarian leaderships.
Latin America has a long history of continuismo and of various attempts (constitutional and otherwise) to thwart it. The conditions giving rise to these struggles are troubling because they suggest that democracies may not be immune to such types of manipulations. In Latin America, continuismo is closely linked with the rise of strong-man leaders, known as caudillos, who emerged in the nineteenth century to fill the political vacuum created with independence from Spain, and to represent the interests of the desperately deprived mixed blood and indigenous populations that had been so brutally repressed under colonial rule. When the dust settled, one caudillo leader invariably triumphed and that leader proceeded to take questionable measures to maintain his hold on power, at times for many decades to come. However, as pressures for political opening gained momentum and elections were eventually held, restrictions were usually placed on presidential and other terms for political office. Throughout the twentieth century, however, caudillo leaders invariably contravened these restrictions.
Political Polarization, Mistrust, and Power
It is useful to examine the motivations on the part of those who both want limitations on electoral terms and those who oppose them. As suggested, the essential contextual variables are political instability, deep polarization, and political mistrust among power contenders. Those who are in power may, as in the case of current Bolivian president Evo Morales, have a strong base of popular support. Nevertheless, Morales’ political opposition is equally strong, mobilized, and deeply distrustful of those in power. Morales’ supporters are fearful that should Morales not have the opportunity for re-election, they might lose the very real gains of recent decades (in this case substantial poverty reduction). With a glance northward to Venezuela, it is also easy to understand how Morales’s opponents among business and the middle class, would fear continuismo as the first step in an increasing concentration of power and a progressive dismantling of democratic guarantees. It is important to bear in mind, that the Latin American political right has been just as inclined to embark on continuismo, as illustrated by Chile’s military dictator Pinochet’s failed attempt to continue in office and Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay) successful one.
There are many ways in which political polarization and uncertainty can erode democracies—continuismo is only one of them. The important lesson here, however, is that political polarization feeds on itself, producing ever higher levels of fear and mistrust and that these emotions drive actions that can erode even the most robust democracy.