This Sunday Ecuadoreans will return to the polls for a second round of voting to elect their next president. Barred by the constitution from running for a third consecutive term, the current President Rafael Correa is not on the ballot after a decade in power. As he ponders his newfound post-presidential life, he would be well-served to reflect on one of Latin America’s greatest presidents: Mexico’s Lázaro Cárdenas.
With little fanfare, a young Cárdenas was elected president of Mexico in 1934. Few would predict his potential. Chosen by his boss, Plutarco Elías Calles, the relatively unknown general from Michoacán was assumed to be a subordinate through whom Calles would continue exercising power. Called the “jefe máximo,” Calles consolidated power during the waning years of the Mexican Revolution and already ruled behind a series of puppet presidents for six years. Although the bloody revolution had just dislodged a strongman who ruled for 35 years—Porfirio Díaz—the country appeared to be headed toward another personalistic dictatorship. But Cárdenas quickly turned the tables on his political master and deported him to the United States.
Having secured his political autonomy, Cárdenas embarked on the most transformational period in modern Mexican history. Workers and peasants, long ignored by political elites, were incorporated into the political process. He advocated women’s suffrage and enforced labor laws. Instead of viewing indigenous people as an impediment to modernity and progress, he elevated and legitimized their contributions and heritage, creating Mexico’s first Department of Indigenous Affairs; nearly 200,000 km2 of land was redistributed to poor farmers. To spur national development, Cárdenas nationalized oil fields and railways. Marking the country’s first major foray into environmental conservation, Cárdenas named 40 national parks. He also built schools, hospitals, and highways.
As his constitutionally-mandated one-term, six-year mandate (the sexenio) ended, likely surrounded by sycophants urging the nation’s most popular politician to remain in power, Cárdenas did the unthinkable– he named an ideologically distinct successor to lead his party into elections, and quickly retired from politics. For the next 30 years, he was an advocate for the poor, aiding in education, medical and irrigation projects.
Although not a perfect president, Cárdenas is still revered. Since 1940, no Mexican president has sought re-election or attempted to modify the sexenio. If a popular, eminently productive president like Cárdenas stepped down on time, how could they possibly justify their continued rule?
Why do term limits matter?
Terms limits are generally associated with presidential rather than parliamentary systems. While it is impossible to determine an optimal amount of time for any individual in higher office, presidential term limits offer several benefits.
For starters, they curb executive ambition. There are no “presidents for life.” Given a finite period to accomplish a specific set of objectives, presidents are forced to develop priorities and immediately embark on fulfilling their electoral promises. With a fixed time and without the need to worry about re-election, they can undertake unpopular, but necessary measures for the public good. With a clear end date, corruption and the predations of power also lose their luster. Misbehavior is threatened with potential prosecution since sitting presidents will soon have to step down and will likely lose immunity.
Second, term limits impose future change and may assist democratization. Charismatic presidents become the focus of national attention in addition to all the advantages of incumbency. They control government institutions, enjoy constant media coverage, and attract voters comfortable with the status quo. Limits mean political parties are empowered to search for replacements to maintain or undo the previous president’s legacy. Political opposition is enticed to engage in the process and change policies through constitutional means. Finally, term limits allow new political institutions to consolidate. Policies are less likely to be directly linked with individual personalities. In time, they mature as they stretch across administrations.
As with everything, term limits require trade-offs. By forcing popular presidents from office, restrictions may unfairly limit voter choice. Rather than trusting voters to expel presidents, legal mechanisms may cut great presidents short. Term limits also ignore context. Countries caught in wars, economic collapse, or dramatic social upheaval could force capable, experienced leaders to exit prematurely. Arguably, in some cases, societies should be forced to successfully avoid a potential disaster or navigate a crisis before tapping a new leader. Yet, the real risks of the perpetual president outweigh the costs.
A citizens’ revolution
A quintessential outsider candidate and populist, Correa, arrived in Carondelet Palace with little political experience. An American-trained economist and academic, his sole time in government was a roughly 100-day stint at the Ministry of Finance. Yet, brandishing a belt (correa in Spanish translates to belt), he successfully caravanned around the country promising to give it to Ecuador’s political elites. He criticized neoliberalism for perpetuating poverty, inequality and exclusion, and he envisioned a proactive central government that would sustain a new “21st Century Socialist” model of development. Joining Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Correa championed greater Latin American integration and envisioned greater independence from the United States and multilateral financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
Despite a decisive second round victory against a billionaire banana magnate, Correa had no real political party. His Alianza País did not recruit a single congressional candidate, because he was going to completely bulldoze Ecuador’s existing institutions. Correa decisively won the referendum to convene a Constitutional Assembly and ultimately approved a new constitution (81% and 64% respectively). He would call another referendum in 2011 to pass a series of reforms he could not get through Congress.
Beyond his tendency to ignore horizontal checks and balances in favor of a more plebiscitary rule, Correa maintained a tempestuous relationship with the local press and demonstrated a thin-skin for criticism. Correa sued El Universal for publishing an editorial that repeatedly referred to the president as a dictator. Although he pardoned the journalists after winning, the whole case symbolized a consistently aggressive attitude towards the press that undermined freedom of press and infiltrated telecommunications regulations. In the end, his tendency to insult and threaten political opponents and independent civil society groups on both the left and right did little to promote better government.
After a decade in power, Correa boasts several significant achievements. Although the economy contracted in 2016, since 2007, Ecuador averaged 3.9% growth in spite of the international slowdown and the recent low commodity prices. This is a significant accomplishment in an oil-dependent country. Sizable investments in infrastructure fueled domestic productivity growth and consumption. In spite of growing fiscal deficits, external debt is still below 2007 levels and remains a manageable 27% of GDP. In a much-publicized move, Correa successfully purchased 91% of Ecuador’s defaulted bonds at 35% of their value. Wages have grown and unemployment remains at its lowest levels since 1990.
Beyond macro-economic stability, Correa promised a social revolution. His new constitution includes a progressive array of rights like access to food, clean water, education, healthcare, and same-sex civil unions. It recognizes the pluri-national character of Ecuador. Notably the document also provides rights to nature and legal standing for the environment. In contrast with previous eras, economic growth has specifically improved the lot of the poor. Poverty was cut in half. Inequality fell from a GINI coefficient of 54.3 to 45.4, and the national share of income for the poorest 10% expanded 70 percent. Healthcare spending doubled with efforts to expand access and improve quality. Life expectancy grew while infant mortality fell 20 percent. Education expenditures doubled to reach 6% of GDP. Primary education completion rates increased, accompanied with free lunches and uniforms for the needy. Secondary enrollment rates broadened from 56 to 82.5% of the population. A housing program offered grants to increase access to housing and subsidies reduced electricity rates.
These significant achievements created a consistent base of popular support. He won election (2009) and re-election (2013) in the first-round. Until recently, CEDATOS polls confirm approval ratings consistently over 50%, a dramatically higher figure than his recent predecessors. Between 1996-2006, five successive presidents failed to complete a full term in office. Ecuador was a byword for instability—much like Haiti. While corruption charges emerging from Petroecuador could directly implicate the president and sully his legacy, at this point he will leave the presidential palace with sizable levels of support. Correa can retire from politics with notable achievements: solid economic stewardship, improved living standards, significant social inclusion, and greater political stability. Yet, his legacy is precariously balanced.
Term limits confronted
Latin America still struggles with term limits. As the memories of military dictatorships recede, canny politicians encourage voters to overturn constitutional provisions. Shrouding their rationale in rhetoric promoting greater choice, better representation, or abandonment of the inflexible straitjackets of presidential limits, a diverse set of politicians continually advocate multiple, longer executive terms. Since the mid-1990s in Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Honduras, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Venezuela, presidents have encouraged, altered, or fully removed constitutional limits to their continued rule.
Ecuador is no different. The new constitution replaced a ban on immediate re-election with the possibility for two consecutive terms. Nevertheless, Correa appears unsatisfied. On December 4th, the National Assembly was cajoled into approving a constitutional reform package that would permit indefinite re-election. The catch is that changes will not go into effect until after Sunday’s election.
Regardless of the outcome, while he spends time with his daughters in Belgium, soon-to-be-ex-President Correa has an important decision to contemplate. He can be Calles or Cárdenas. His legacy is best preserved if he chooses to emulate the latter.