Summer 1998

Continuismo in Latin America
Detour in the Democratic Transition

James Petras
LASA Forum


Two of the fundamental tenets of Latin America's transition to democracy have been "alternation" (the possibility that opposition parties can become government) and the existence of a level playing field, meaning that governing regimes could not use the resources of the state to perpetuate themselves in power.

At the very onset of the transition however, the principle of alternation was severely compromised: electoral laws favored the dominant parties and in some cases military-authored constitutions prevailed that allowed for lifetime senators from the Armed Forces and denied representation for minority parties, as was the case in Chile. In most others, media access and electoral financing favored the parties with big business backing. In addition, financial constraints imposed by international financial institutions served to narrow the parameters of "acceptable" debate and party competition. The end result was that the principle of alternation of parties in government was severely compromised and the alternatives implied in the notion of alternation were sharply delineated. In summary, during the transition formal alternation was codified while substantive alternation was de facto eliminated.

The second tenet of the democratic transition, the notion of electoral procedures free of state interventions in favor of incumbent regimes, was translated into legal terms (even in constitutional clauses) through the prohibition of the reelection of Presidents. Presumably the incumbent President would thus be discouraged from using state expenditures to influence voters or the military and police to intimidate electoral constituencies from voting for the opposition.

Incumbents promoting their reelection were called continuistas and continuismo had its roots in the dictatorial practice of personalized dictators who ran and won a series of elections through the above-mentioned state patronage and force that were the perquisites of office. Constitutional jurists thought that the absence of the incumbent would weaken the commitment to use state financing and lessen the basis for the use of force to favor a particular candidate. However, incumbents often used their office to favor new candidates or proteges from their own party, thus perpetuating de facto their rule behind the scene. The exception to this of course is the Mexican system, where the P.R.I. Party-State has at its disposal the state machinery to "elect" the President's designated candidate.

As compromised and diluted as these procedures are, to a limited degree they did forestall the emergence of authoritarian rulerships within the electoral systems that emerged from the democratic transitions.

Today these democratic safeguards are under severe attack Cindeed they have been eroded almost beyond recognition in key countries of Latin America. The principle of alternation persists but it has lost a great deal of meaning for many voters as the competing parties have been pressured to conform to the neo-liberal dogma. As the costs of free markets and liberalization have been largely borne by the wage and salaried groups they have turned away from active identification with parties and electoral leaders, in or out of office. In many cases disinterest and electoral abstentionism has increased substantially. The failure to provide procedures that in fact equalize the playing field during electoral campaigns has turned alternation into a revolving carousel in which different personalities and parties change seats but pursue similar policies.

The second challenge to the democratic transition is the re-emergence of continuismo, albeit within the framework of electoral politics rather than a military regime. Where and why this reversion to an authoritarian procedure has taken hold and the question it raises for a theory of democratic transition are key issues.


Democratic Detour: The Rise of Continuismo

Historically democrats in Latin America argued that abuses of state authority were key elements in the formation of an authoritarian political culture. One of the key abuses was not only the perpetuation of personal power a la Pinochet but the perpetuation of institutional power by the military through narrow selection of successor regimes (Brazil and Argentina). The existence of deeply entrenched vested interests, democrats argued, fostered political corruption, and robbed the voters of real choices in selecting officials and deciding political agendas. Thus democrats, constitutional lawyers, and academic specialists sought to include electoral procedures that eliminated one of the key provisions for continuismo--the reelection of incumbent Presidents.

Less than a decade after the first transitions to democracy, this fundamental democratic safeguard has been undermined. A new wave of "constitutional reforms" has been initiated by incumbent regimes to perpetuate themselves in power, using precisely the powers and resources of office to abolish the restrictive clauses. Fujimori in Peru was followed by Menem in Argentina and then Cardoso in Brazil and other Presidents, such as Balladares in Panama seek to follow in their footsteps. Over half of the Latin American people are ruled by "continuista regimes" if we include the Mexican one-party state.

Several factors account for the reemergence of this self-perpetuation of power. In the first instance there is the authoritarian style of leadership and elitist socioeconomic policies that preceded and provided the institutional bases and "political culture" for the implementation of the continuismo legislation. Secondly, there is the socioeconomic content of the "unfinished business" cited by the incumbents as justification for their perpetuation in power. Finally, there are the power and interests of the major social classes and economic interests which benefit from the continuation in power of the incumbents and their resolute pursuit of their economic policies.

The "reelection reforms" were preceded by a style of rulership which can easily be identified as authoritarian. Key economic measures, such as privatization, austerity measures, and denationalization of natural resources were implemented by executive decree. Politically the executive frequently bypassed the legislature (Cardoso), evaded or packed the judiciary with submissive jurors (Menem), or even abolished parliament (Fujimori). The military and intelligence agencies reemerged to play a major role in internal security. Public funds were ostentatiously distributed to influence legislators in order to secure their loyalty to the regime. The new authoritarian style thus destroyed the independence and separation of governmental powers. The rulers created practices that could be applied to ensure the acquiescence of legislators in the reelection "reform." Authoritarianism bred continuismo which in turn strengthened the idea and practices of centralized personal rulership.

The second factor that propelled the authoritarian reforms was the "delay" in fully liberalizing the economy, reordering labor-capital relations and integrating the economy into the global market. While the first presidency witnessed a sharp break with the populist-nationalist past, trade union, parliamentary and judicial constraints put limits on the pace and scope on the implementation of the full free market agenda. The incumbent presidents were aided and abetted by the international financial institutions, which wanted to extend their agenda and make the changes irreversible. Equally significant, the first measures of liberalization, privatization and reductions in state subsidies and lowering of tariff barriers created short term stabilization followed by stagnationCwhich in turn led to more extensive measures of privatization and new "shocks to labor." Continuity of rulership was seen by the incumbents and their key supporters as the means of "stabilizing" and deepening the original processCin a word political continuity was seen as a means of deepening and consolidating free market policies that had fragile social support but strong backing from key local and international supporters.

The third factor that contributed to the reversion to the continuista style of political rulership was the strong backing it received from the major socioeconomic beneficiaries of the regime and the benign view from Washington. The "reforms" were backed by the major bankers, multinational and local export elites who were able to cash in on the regime's generous sell off of public assets and the promise of more to come. The mass media linked to big business conglomerates or controlled by the regime led the way in providing a favorable press to the reelection venture. Key opposition politicians were brought into the deal and offered major government subsidies to support their local clientele. In a word, the incumbent president utilized the resources of the state to subsidize a formidable array of elites that allowed for changes in the legislation that were originally designed to prevent these practices from extending rulership beyond a limited tenure of office.

The second presidency followed closely on the first in terms of styles of rulership and socioeconomic policy. Assured of the highest office via the massive use of state resources, Menem and Fujimori proceeded to deepen the privatization process and marginalize the legislature. Cardoso pursues his quest for reelection through large-scale privatization and powerful and extensive ties to the economic elites while closely monitoring monetary policy and state handouts to potential opposition legislators.

The second presidency encourages a possible third presidency. The logic of rule in perpetuum has already taken hold. Both Menem and Fujimori are pursuing possibilities for one more turn. The prospects for Menem, however, are not as promising, the result of inter-elite ruptures in the governing party and the emergence of a centrist opposition with a similar economic agenda and less tainted (with corruption) alternatives.

Long-term rule based on personal dominance, rule by decree, the subordination of the judiciary and legislature to executive rule and the prolongation of power based on the continuista practice is a sharp detour from the norms and practices of democratic politics. These authoritarian features emanate from civilian regimes, originally elected in somewhat competitive circumstances, and through the use and abuse of clauses and procedures originally intended to safeguard the country from a return to the preceding authoritarian military order. Similarities to the past undermine efforts to mark a decisive break with former eras. In fact, both at the national and international level the militarization of politics is accompanying the new electoral authoritarianism.



The transition from military rule to democracy has suffered a series of severe setbacks. From the early faltering steps which sought to provide a semblance of democratic procedures, the transitions have taken a political detour, not back toward military rule, nor forward toward democratic rulership. Rather a peculiar hybrid regime has emerged that combines electoral processes with authoritarian styles of rulership. A process of alternation of politicos takes place but within institutionally constrained parameters that severely limit programmatic choices. While civilian regimes pursue market policies, they enforce their preferences by increasingly relying on the military to contain opposition. The civilian regimes use democratic processes like elections to pursue authoritarian goals like "reelection" through highly dubious political practices Clike packing the courts, dismissing congress or buying opposition politicos.

A major argument of contemporary liberal democratic theorists in favor of a democratic transition was the centrality of norms and procedures, what Bobbio called the "democratic rules of the game." In this line of argument substantive issues were subordinated to compliance with the electoral norms and procedures. The question that arises today however is what happens when the norms themselves are twisted to fit the power exigencies of market-driven regimes and elections become elements in the self-perpetuation of incumbent power holders? Can we still speak of a democratic transition? Can democracy exist without democrats? It is clear that procedures are important, indeed necessary, for any democratic transition worthy of its name. But when it is embedded in a substantive setting where the market--the free market--has primacy, and the deepening and extension of free market policies becomes the overarching goal, it is not surprising that there is an authoritarian temptation to perpetuate the power holders "just one more term" in order to cultivate the right kind of market outcome, to privatize the last telecommunication monopoly, to make the new private property ownership irreversible. Continuismo becomes a logical outcome calling into question the notion that free markets and democracy are interchangeable.