Three democracies walk into a bar… One leaves broken, another proud, and the last lingering by the door


By John Poor and Sarahann Yeh

Political pundits worldwide are mulling over the future of South American constitutional democracy. Years of corruption, nepotism and economic discrimination have led to unprecedented grassroots movements around the region, which, in some cases, have heralded expanded political and socioeconomic inclusion. In others, they have stirred populist tides to sweep away constitutional democracy, leaving dictatorships in their wake. Three nations undergoing democratic transition, in particular, receive close attention for their diverse outcomes and the potential lessons for other South American nations.

Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have witnessed the peaceful and democratic overthrow of their entrenched political classes amidst popular calls for groundbreaking reforms. Each movement was led by a charismatic political outsider championing constitutional reform and social inclusion. For left-leaning democratization scholars, this signalled a new wave of national representation. Meanwhile, right-leaning academics cautioned against expanded executive powers and populist dictatorships resembling those of the early 20th century. Both are partially true, as we find below.

Venezuela: Democracy broken

In Venezuela, democratic consolidation has led to constitutional breakdown. Nineteen years ago, Hugo Chávez came to power promising to ameliorate a corrupt, elitist political structure. He argued that securing power for marginalized members required formal codification of human rights protection and expanded executive powers to protect them. He then convinced the people that a drastic reformulation of political institutions was necessary.

Upon securing a new constitution in 1999, Chávez moved to fulfill his promises. Whenever a problem arose, he rallied citizens and offered social benefits packages in exchange for expanded powers. Eventually, he established a system ripe for dictatorship through democratic methods. When he died of cancer in 2013, his powers were transferred to Nicolas Maduro, why systematically dismantled any democratic pretense. Now, protests break out regularly, the military controls markets and elections are appointments. Venezuela is nearly a failed state with an authoritarian dictator whose populist tendencies unintentionally destroyed constitutional democracy.

Ecuador: Democracy upheld

In Ecuador, democratic checks and balances have stopped unwanted power consolidation. In February 2018, 64 percent of Ecuadorians voted for a two-term presidential limit, effectively nullifying a 2015 constitutional amendment that paved the way for lifelong positions. The vote dealt a fatal blow to former President Rafael Correa’s hopes of returning to power. Correa, who governed Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, was a self-described supporter of “socialism for the 21st century” who favored liberal policies such as increased government spending and raising the minimum wage.

In 2015, Correa successfully eliminated re-election limits as part of a general policy reform. To win the favor of lawmakers, he promised not to run in 2017, yet left the door open for 2021. The recent popular referendum removed this option, which is largely recognized as a win for democracy, even by Correa’s hand-picked successor Lenin Moreno.

Bolivia: Only time will tell

The democratic future of Bolivia remains in question. Evo Morales, entering his twelfth year as president, is tightening his executive grasp. Morales came to power in early 2006, amidst a wave of pro-indigenous, anti-establishment sentiments that helped usher in a new constitution with equal representation three years later. These years proved crucial in improving the social fabric of the country.

Today many Bolivians express frustration with Morales’s unrelenting attempts to remain in power. The 2009 constitution allows single-term consecutive re-election, but  Morales is currently seeking a fourth consecutive term. He first skirted term limits in 2013, when the constitutional court granted his petition to run a third time. In 2016, Morales issued a public referendum asking permission to run for a fourth. Fifty-one percent voted “no.”

The results shook the country, but Morales refused to accept the decision and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party launched a legal battle against term limits in September 2017. The MAS-controlled constitutional court subsequently ruled term limits unconstitutional, paving the way for a life-long Morales presidency.

Citizens took to the streets led by 21F, a new movement named after the February 21, 2016 referendum. During the December 2017 national judicial elections, opposition voters protested by “nullifying” their ballot by marking outside voting boxes. On the referendum’s second anniversary, thousands protested in every major Bolivian city. 21F activists showed up on Bolivian National Day in August.

Meanwhile, the MAS-controlled government remains indignant, thoroughly supporting Morales as their presidential candidate for the 2019 elections. The government has begun to suppress major opposition candidates using questionable legal challenges.

Will Bolivian democracy — touted as an inclusive, pro-indigenous force — withstand the 2019 presidential elections? Will Morales allow free and fair elections? At this point, Bolivia stands to learn from its regional neighbors. They can take the path of Venezuela, teetering dangerously close to autocracy, or they can follow Ecuador by honoring the will of the people. Only time will tell how the cards fall.

About the CCSDD

The CCSDD is a research partnership between the School of Law of the University of Bologna and the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy (SAIS Europe).

The CCSDD conducts research and training in the field of comparative constitutional law, focusing on countries undergoing a process of democratic transition. Through conferences, workshops, publications, summer schools, study trips, and speaker series, the CCSDD addresses issues of civil society development and legal reform.

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