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A New Wave of Elected 'Kings'?

The liberator Simon Bolivar once remarked that "Latin Americans elect monarchs whom we then call presidents."

This depiction could well apply to Latin America today, as an increasing number of the region's presidents are amending their national constitutions in order to permit consecutive presidential reelection. Traditionally banned as a bar against authoritarianism, this practice has important implications for the consolidation of democracy in the region.

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Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Carlos Menem of Argentina amended their constitutions successfully in the early 1990s and were both reelected for second terms in 1995. Outspoken reformers who preach the virtues of a competitive market economy, Mr. Fujimori and Mr. Menem nonetheless prefer monopoly power over the presidency. Last week Brazilian head of state Fernando Henrique Cardoso won a close congressional vote that will permit a similar amendment.

Why has presidential reelection come to the forefront of Latin American politics?

A cynical explanation - or a cultural one - would suggest that Latin America is incapable of true democracy. A more compelling answer, however, lies not in culture but in the politics of economic reform. In Argentina, Peru, and Brazil, economic chaos wrought by prior regimes left the three presidents with little choice but to embark upon radical reforms. All three implemented price-level stabilization, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and trade liberalization. They often did so by bypassing congressional or even popular consent and ruling by decree.

The results were stellar. In 1990, Fujimori inherited hyperinflation of more than 7,000 percent and negative growth; five years later inflation was at 20 percent and Peru's growth was the highest in the world at 13 percent. In 1991, Menem and his technocrats launched a currency convertibility program that pegged the peso to the US dollar, thus virtually eliminating inflation. As finance minister in 1994, Mr. Cardoso was widely credited with eliminating Brazil's chronic inflation.

While successful economic performance propelled the reelection issue to the fore of domestic politics, weak opposition parties in the three countries also contributed to final approval of the reelection amendments.

In a short-sighted protest against Fujimori's proposed reelection amendment, Peru's traditional parties boycotted the 1992 election of a constituent congress to draft a new constitution. This allowed for a slim but crucial pro-Fujimori majority in the body, which eventually approved the reelection clause.

In Argentina, Menem used the threat of an uncertain national plebiscite on the reelection question to cajole the opposition Radical Party into voting in favor of the reelection clause in the constitutional assembly, although national support for the amendment was tepid at best. Brazil's opposition parties were likewise unable to coalesce and effectively challenge even the more academically minded Cardoso.

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Despite the critics who warn that reelection of strong executives is a stepping stone toward authoritarian rule, it is possible that second presidential terms might ultimately prove salutary for democracy in Latin America. Second-term presidents must accept personal responsibility for the effects of policies adopted earlier; thus a measure of accountability is introduced.

Indeed, rising unemployment and labor unrest in Argentina and the regrettable resurgence of terrorism in Peru are making it remarkably clear to presidents and oppositions alike that there is more to democracy than presidential decrees.

* Carlos Lozada is a graduate student at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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