More on presidential reelection in Colombia (and elsewhere)

I recommend the remarks by boz on Sunday regarding the approval of presidential eligibility for reelection in Colombia.

The issue of reelecton limits (such as the single-term ban now being lifted for Colombian presidents) arises, of course, only in presidential systems, where collective party responsibility is far weaker than in parliamentary systems.

(Term limits for legislators are quite rare, but they exist only in presidential systems and usually where parties are weak, the long Mexican authoritarian experience notwithstanding.)

In presidential systems, especially with fairly weak parties–a category in which Colombia would be placed–the individual leader who occupies the chief executive position is by far the most important politician in the country. It is precisely this dominance–no matter how much the president may be checked by congress or the courts, he or she is the unchallenged head of the executive branch for a fixed term–that leads to restrictions on reelection in the first place. Term limits, it is argued, preclude one leader from abusing the office to secure multiple terms.

But at times, one leader arises who is widely seen as effective, and a term limit prevents voters from having the right to retain this leader. The decision to allow Uribe to seek a second term repersents such an occasion.

In this context, something specifica that boz said is well worth heeding:

Colombia’s success or failure cannot and should not rest with the fate of any individual, but rather with the people and the institutions of government as a whole. My faith rests with the Colombian people, not with any individual leader. An Uribe loss would not be the end of the world.

Indeed. Reelection can be part of a process of strengthening democratic institutions, by permitting voters to reward (or not) an incumbent, and by the realignment of the party system that might accompany a reelection bid in the context of a pre-existing weak party system. That is, his eligibility for reelection could encourage the opposition to organize more effectively to provide voters with a real choice. And, in this regard, I also agree with another observation by boz. He notes that the vote next year could turn out to be close:

There is no doubt that a majority of Colombians approve of Uribe’s first term in office. However, Colombian voters will also be very willing to listen to and consider the arguments of opposition candidates before firmly deciding on their vote.

If this is what eligibility for reelection brings, this is a very healthy development. A reelection bid brings the opportunity for voters to decide they do not want to retain their current leader, which would be every bit as much a healthy development as deciding (in a free contest) to retain him.

As I noted in the comments over at Publius Pundit, this reelection amendment is different from those in the past decade in Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela, in that it is a democratic consensus, and not the incumbent’s imposition. In that sense, it is like the reelecton amendment in Brazil that allowed President Cardoso to win a second term in 1998 and that will allow Lula to run for (and possibly be denied, based on current trends) reelection about a year from now.

In Brazil, the reelection amendment was accompanied by a reduction in the term, which had the beneficial side effect of making the first round of the presidential election concurrent with congressional elections. This gave Cardoso and Lula “coattails” that generated a convergence of Brazil’s fragmented congressional parties around the two major blocs contending for the presidency.

In Colombia, elections will remain non-concurrent, but the reelection amendment is accompanied by a major transformation of the congressional electoral rules that will reduce fragmentation and should enhance the value of party labels. The existing de-facto SNTV system is being replaced by list PR (open lists in most parties, though they have the option of presenting a closed list). It is worth noting that the specific reform that was passed to the electoral system was passed over Uribe’s objection, yet it would not have happened without his election having been a threat to the existence of the traditional parties. The result is an electoral law that is likely to increase the ability of voters to use their congressional vote as a means to affect the direction of policy (whether pro-Uribe or not), something that was largely precluded by the excessive intra-party fragmentation of the former system.

The vlaue of eligibility of a president for reelection is thus when it is accompanied by other processes that enhance the institutionalizatoin of party competition. Its value does not lie simply in allowing a specific, popular, and effective leader to retain office.

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