Like the United States and Europe, most Latin American countries permit their presidents or prime ministers to be reelected, either consecutively (as in Brazil and Argentina) or after alternating out of office (as in Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay, among others). Presidents can serve indefinitely in Venezuela, Nicaragua and, after a recent decision by its legislature, Ecuador.
But not in Paraguay, where the constitution prohibits reelection. Within the region, only Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia similarly limit presidents to one term. Honduras left that small cohort when it voted to allow reelection in 2015.
A wavering commitment to term limits
Now the current Paraguayan president, tobacco mogul Horacio Cartes of the Colorado party, is proposing to amend the constitution to allow his reelection (low approval ratings notwithstanding). At least two past presidents – former bishop Fernando Lugo, who was unseated in a 2012 impeachment and his predecessor from the Colorado party, Nicanor Duarte Frutos – could also benefit from Cartes’ effort.
Two other presidential candidates, Mario Abdo of the ruling Colorado party and Efrain Alegre, of the Liberal Radical Authentic Party (PLRA, in its Spanish acronym), staunchly oppose the proposal.
This is not the first time Paraguay has debated reelection. The rule came about in 1992, in response to the 34-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Never since his ouster in 1989 has a Paraguayan president served more than one five-year term in Asuncion’s Lopez Presidential Palace.
That doesn’t mean they haven’t tried. Over the past 27 years of Paraguayan democracy, at least three presidents have sought, unsuccessfully, to extend their tenures, including both Lugo and his predecessor, Duarte Frutos. Andrés Rodríguez, the man who overthrew Stroessner in 1989, disputed the provision within his party even as the new government was penning the country’s post-dictatorship Constitution in 1992.
The current debate, which is dominating headlines, is Paraguay’s latest attempt to grapple with the reelection issue. There are four ways forward. The first, and most likely, is staying with the status quo. The next two paths would depend on congress, which could choose to either amend or reform the constitution. And the final option would call on the supreme court to reexamine article 229 of the constitution.
Lugo and his lawyers are pushing for the judicial route, based the interpretation that the prohibition on reelection only applies to current presidents (such as Cartes) and that former presidents are allowed to run again. But their camp has also suggested that Cartes would qualify if he’s willing to resign at least six months before the election. A court date has not been scheduled.
Strange bedfellows and political infighting
Since the end of dictatorship in 1989, Paraguay’s party system has been designed to prevent a concentration of power. Formally following the D'Hondt formula as well as an informal quota system, key positions are distributed across parties at all levels of government, both national and local.
The system also establishes factions within parties, each with its own leadership. This compels members of the same party to compete internally to determine the party’s official candidate list for congressional seats, governorships, and even the presidency. Internal competition does not magically disappear after elections are over, maintaining proportional and distributed power.
The setup can lead to strange bedfellows. Right now, ex-president Lugo’s greatest ally for reelection is a prominent member of the opposition PLRA party, Blas Llano. Against his party’s wishes, Llano hopes to maintain his internal PLRA faction’s current quota by negotiating on behalf of both Lugo and Cartes to enable reelection. Other members of his party are pushing their preferred presidential candidate, internal PLRA caucus leader Efraín Alegre.
Prohibiting reelection significantly limits a president’s ability to build political capital and influence his party’s long-term agenda. It means the “lame duck” period of a presidency is unusually long at up to two years. So party members inevitably distance themselves from the weakened leader, making it far more difficult for sitting presidents, such as Cartes, to pick their preferred successor (or work towards reelection).
A president’s diminished power at his or her term’s end can even have the opposite result of empowering party members vying for leadership. That’s the case now, as the most powerful spoiler of Cartes’ bid to change the constitution to enable reelection is Senator Mario Abdo, leader of a defiant caucus within the president’s own Colorado party.
But negotiations continue, with the president cozying up to various members of the political opposition, including people within Lugo’s own Frente Guasu party. He is also seeking to ally himself with the PLRA caucus led by Blas Llano, though that effort is limited by the fact that the PLRA’s other faction is rallying behind its leader, Efraín Alegre.
Given this scenario of infighting and across-the-aisle manoeuvering, it’s not clear if congress will take any of the actions necessary to allow Cartes’s reelection. That puts pressure on the supreme court to weigh in on presidential reelection.
In the meantime, allegiances will continue to shift, perhaps unbalancing the power-sharing arrangement that has characterised Paraguayan democracy since 1989. For now, three former presidents – plus a handful of first-timers – eagerly await their chance to become future presidents.