My latest for Americas Quarterly argues that the hand-wringing over the advantages of incumbency in Latin America is overwrought, and that term limits may actually hinder the development of sustained policy gains.
In particular, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff each won their respective presidential contests since June. But two of those three elections were incredibly competitive:
Incumbent victories in Brazil and Colombia, the two largest economies of South America today, are also much more fragile than they appear. Rousseff only narrowly defeated challenger Aécio Neves, and her margin of victory was the smallest of any presidential election since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985.
Santos actually lost Colombia’s first-round vote in May to the more conservative Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had threatened to shut down talks between the Santos government and the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) that have destabilized the country for a half-century. More notably, the country’s March parliamentary elections transformed the Colombian Congress from a rubber-stamp chamber into a much stronger check on presidential power.
In both countries, democratic competition is on the rise. Even in countries lacking truly fair elections, such as in Venezuela, Henrique Capriles nearly defeated President Nicolás Maduro in April 2013, despite the widespread institutional advantages from which Maduro benefitted after over a decade of chavismo.
Read it all here.