Honduras, the will of the Honduran people, and the state of the country’s democracy are — as we speak — under attack by the country’s president, Juan Orlando Hernández Alvaro. A 6 PM curfew has been imposed as of Friday, 12/1. Constitutional guarantees have been suspended. At least 7 people have died in counter-protests. The impetus: the country’s national elections last Sunday, 11/26. To the surprise of Hernández and international observers alike, they did not result in his favor. Leaked (and corroborated) election results show that Salvador Nasralla, a candidate from the center-left, pro-democracy coalition, upset Hernández in an election that enjoyed the highest voter turnout rates in recent Honduran history. Throwing democratic norms to the wind, the election results are being guarded and rejected by the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal — a body constitutionally under the control of Hernández’s executive branch.
When there’s smoke, there’s fire; the illegal seizure of the state, as elected by the people, is tantamount to a coup d’etat.
Bolivia, meanwhile, is quietly catching up with Honduras on the scale of executive aggrandizement. There is no curfew, nor is there a suspension of constitutional protections. To the imprudent eye, Bolivia is a healthy democracy. But the country’s controversial executive, President Evo Morales, has been laying critical groundwork towards a fully-realized state of executive aggrandizement. Through dubious legal maneuvers and a flagrant disregard for constitutional sanctity, Morales has coopted the courts and manipulated the constitution to all but eliminate term limits. After a failed 2016 referendum on a constitutional amendment that would have “eased term limits in the country’s Constitution and allowed him to run for a fourth time”, Morales then exploited an obscure 1969 provision in the American Convention on Human Rights. The legal argument, in layman’s terms, is that term limits discriminate against the president. Just a few days ago, on 11/28, Bolivia’s constitutional court dealt a win to Morales and a blow to democracy. He is now seated for a fourth term.
When there’s smoke, there’s fire; the indefinite corrosion of term limits by a sitting president is an irrevocable step towards dictatorship.
The Honduras-Bolivia comparison reveals the modern day conditions for executive aggrandizement: the consolidation and perpetuation of power is the motivation; the manipulation of term limits and electoral procedures are the two main strategies; and ostensible democratic procedures are the enabler.
In other words, both Bolivia and Honduras have presidents who are bent on staying in power. Both Bolivia and Honduras have systems that enable it. Were there not a perfect storm of legal mechanisms through which executives could curtail checks and balances under the nose of democratic watchdogs, leaders like Hernández and Morales would not get away with executive aggrandizement, the will of the people would prevail, and democracy would be far more robust.
Bermeo (2016) conceptualized the idea of executive aggrandizement both in and of itself and in relation to more conventional executive coups. Per Bermeo, executive aggrandizement occurs without full executive replacement, wherein the current executive instead systematically weakens checks on power until there are few left to curtail their authority.
Term limits and electoral integrity have a well-documented, central role in this process of executive consolidation of control over other branches of government and, thus, over the country. Louw-Vaudran’s evidence from Africa emphasizes how term limits are a necessary bulwark against abuse of power, especially when electoral systems are weak.
Corrales and Penfold, meanwhile, spoke intimately of this phenomenon in Latin America. They establish that the more relaxed a country’s term limits, the lower they score on the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, which cover “rule of law, corruption, political instability, and governmental effectiveness.” More directly relevant to the Honduran and Bolivian experience, they go on to emphasize that “even if presidents fail to change the rules, they worsen the quality of democracy just by trying their luck” (162).
Executive aggrandizement in Honduras and Bolivia, as all authors predicted, is contingent upon an intricate formula — one which both regimes are following with cunning diligence.
In a New York Times article aptly titled “The Hypocrisy of Evo Morales”, columnists José Miguel Vivanco and Juan Pappier open with a sobering proclamation: “President Evo Morales of Bolivia seems obsessed with staying in power.” Although Morales was first elected as a beacon of leftist, pro-indigenous, pro-democracy triumph in 2006 — the poster boy of Latin America’s celebrated “Pink Tide” — he is now seeking a highly contested fourth consecutive term. When he first came into power, for context, presidents could serve a maximum of two non-consecutive terms. Critics call it a “blow to democracy”, rightfully so.
In Honduras, a similar obsession with power is a guiding motivation for Hernández’s rejection of the recent elections. He broke with centuries of precedent and abolished the one-term limit on presidential terms.
Both leaders have clearly zeroed in on term limits, and the associated electoral procedures, as the most effective strategy of executive aggrandizement. This strategy involves the long-term, systematic politicization, cooptation, and consequent erosion of key institutions of checks and balances. The resulting rubber stamp governing bodies carry out the presidents’ attack on term limits and, thus, on democracy.
With the constitutional court nearly under his full control, Morales won a 2013 law suit in which his first term (2006 – 2010) was declared null because it preceded the 2009 Constitution that Morales, unsurprisingly, ordered and orchestrated. This was the first attack on term limits. In 2016, after a failed referendum on abolishing term limits, Morales filed a law suit in the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal claiming that term limits were a form of political persecution.
Bolivia’s constitutional court, as of a few days now, sided with Morales. Despite an outpouring of protests both in Bolivia and abroad, Morales has just paved the way to stand for another term in 2019. If elected, per the court ruling, he would be in power until 2025.
Hernández, meanwhile, is seeking to expand the country’s one-term limit to two-terms — for now. This was legalized two years ago in a Supreme Court decision made by 5 judges, all of whom were appointed by Hernández. His historic loss in the past election has thrown a wrench in his pursuit of power, and the fate of democracy is being guarded by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. A reminder: under the Honduran constitution, this is under the control of the executive branch, the office that Hernández still holds. Prospects for democracy are ever-dimmer as the days since the election drag on.
Unlike President Maduro in Venezuela, or his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chavez, or even President Correa in Ecuador, both Morales and Hernández enjoy little to no substantive international condemnation. This is, in large part, because procedural democracy is business as usual. Elections are held. Morales performs his indigeneity as a façade to obscure the fact that he has done little, in tangible terms, for Bolivia’s large indigenous population. Hernández’s move to abolish term limits faced little to no criticism from the country’s political and business leaders.
The obfuscation of executive aggrandizement by the ostensible, but convincing, trappings of democracy is an age-old strategy of stealth authoritarians. The de jure legality of their maneuvers enables their de facto anti-democratic character.
Hernández is a reliable conservative, while Morales is considered a champion of the global socialist left. Latin American executive aggrandizement in 2017 knows no partisan boundaries. Rather, it is a chameleonic breed; one which follows the path of least resistance. The crisis of international apathy, coupled with the hollowed out institutions of checks and balances, provide Hernández and Morales just that.
Photo by: Yamil Gonzalez. Originally posted to Flickr 11 June 2007. Creative Commons License approved.