The perennial war of term limits versus presidents in Latin America seems to have opened a new front in Colombia — my native country, no less. There, it appears that term limits pose no match for popular President Uribe, whose supporters have pushed through a bill in the senate that paves the way for a referendum to remove limits on presidential re-election. The constitutional court (an interesting innovation of the 1991 constitution) will review the bill and, assuming no objections, Uribe’s supporters will need to muster a majority of voters (with a quorum of 1/4 of the electorate voting) to secure a constitutional amendment on term limits.
This should not be surprising. Honduras notwithstanding, term limits usually lose the fight against Presidents. At least that’s what the recent wave of constitutional amendments and replacements suggests (a short list from memory from the last 20 years includes Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia). The overall record between the two contenders is unknown, since term limit victories (when contested) are not documented very easily — certainly, the Honduran case is not alone. However, in some back-of-the envelope accounting my co-authors Tom Ginsburg, James Melton, and I find that term limits have been breached about twice a year since 1945. In 1973 alone, term limits were violated six times.
Most of these violations have occurred in Latin America, at least prior to the 1960s or so. Until that time, most other countries either had executives without fixed terms or did not impose term limits. On the other hand, over 80% of constitutions in Latin American imposed term limits on executives through World War II, after which countries began to remove limits. Today, about 50% of constitutions in Latin America include such limits, the same proportion as constitutions in the rest of the world. [All these data are from the Comparative Constitutions Project].
All of this, of course, revives the normative debate about term limits and the inevitable tension between two threats to democratic representation: the finger-on-the-scale effect of incumbency and the heavy hand of candidate restrictions.