Across a number of countries including Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, incumbent presidents in Latin America have recently sought to amend their constitutions to eliminate or weaken presidential term limits. In some cases, these efforts to extend terms have been part of broader projects to consolidate power, weaken other state institutions, and tilt the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents. From a legal perspective, these cases are interesting because they highlight the limits of tools limiting constitutional change, such as eternity clauses and the unconstitutional constitutional amendment doctrine, to constrain potentially anti-democratic or anti-liberal forms of constitutional change. Although constitutional texts in most of these cases gave courts ample ammunition to reject attempts to eliminate term limits or at least to force those changes down more demanding paths, courts did not stand in the way of most of these efforts and in some cases even used the doctrines to eliminate rather than protect term limits. The case studies highlight the extent to which the “superficial” spread of doctrines controlling constitutional change may fail to block, and indeed may promote, forms of constitutional change that threaten liberal democratic constitutionalism. It also suggests possibilities for deepening the effectiveness of transnational dialogue on these issues.
This piece was written for a symposium on “Global Constitutionalism,” convened at the Clough Center for Democracy at Boston College Law School in December 2016.
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