The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In El Salvador and elsewhere, leaders find ways to break term limits

When leaders bend the rules to stay in power, it’s a red flag for democracy

President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador addresses the nation on Sept. 16. (Casa Presidencial de El Salvador/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele announced last month that he would run for a second consecutive term. The announcement follows last year’s ruling by the Salvadoran Supreme Court that abolished the country’s one-term constitutional limit for the presidency.

Bukele’s move mirrors successful efforts by other democratically elected leaders to extend their terms — including Bolivia’s Evo Morales in 2017 and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe in 2005. Many observers criticized his reelection bid, claiming a second term would entrench Bukele’s control over the country and push El Salvador back on a path of authoritarian rule. El Salvador’s previous authoritarian period ended in 1994 after years of civil war.

Are critics correct in worrying about El Salvador’s democracy? In new research, we show that personalist party leaders like Bukele are more likely to try to expand executive power — including attempts to alter term limit rules — putting democratic governance at risk.

Term limits help curb executive power

Limits to executive time in office help ensure regular, institutionalized rotation of leadership. Term limit extensions, by contrast, can be a red flag for democracy, suggesting a leader’s intention to stay in office by subverting rules established to curb executive power.

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In such instances, leaders may try to ensure their continued hold on power by abolishing term limits altogether — or more subtly, attempt to alter the number of terms they may serve. They pursue such efforts in a variety of ways, including putting matters to a popular vote via referendum, pursuing new legislation or amending the constitution.

Not all efforts to extend a leader’s term are successful, even if the vast majority of such efforts succeed. Malawian President Bakili Muluzi, for instance, failed to convince enough legislators (including members of his own party) to amend the constitution in 2003 to allow himself a third term as president.

A rise in personalist parties is fueling term limit changes

The rise in efforts to revoke term limits takes place amid a growing trend worldwide in what we call “personalist” parties — organizations that primarily serve to further their leaders’ election and political careers, rather than to advance a clear policy agenda. Examples include Hugo Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) in Venezuela, Alpha Condé’s Rally of the Guinean People (RPG) party in Guinea, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz coalition in Hungary and Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.

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For years, personalism was more prevalent in autocracies. Leaders could more easily concentrate power in their own hands, freed from having to compete in free and fair elections — and there was less likelihood of an independent institution reliably enforcing the rules. Personalism today is no longer confined to autocracies, as personalist parties have become increasingly prevalent in democratic-leaning countries. In personalist parties, party elites often do little to block their leader’s ambitions, since their own careers are so closely linked to the leader’s. What’s more, such elites typically lack the capacity to challenge the leader, who typically controls the party’s financial resources and nominations.

These leaders are more likely to try to quash term limits

Most leaders, most of the time, do not consider changing term limit rules, probably because they know they will fail. More often, parties discourage their leaders from changing established rules, diminishing efforts to alter term limits. But when a pliant, personalist party backs the leader, we see more attempts to change the rules.

To study this relationship, we use term limit data from political scientist Kristin McKie. Because term limit rules apply to presidential systems with a directly elected chief executive, we limit our analysis to presidential systems; the analysis examines 234 leaders in 57 countries between 1993 and 2018. Thus, the geographic coverage encompasses regions where democracies typically feature presidential governments, with most cases coming from the Americas (46 percent) and Africa (26 percent) and fewer from Asia (17 percent) and Europe (11 percent).

The data include leaders’ attempts to abolish term limit rules, as well as to extend their terms in office. To count as an “attempt,” we look for concrete markers, such as proposed legislation or a referendum on a constitutional change. The data do not capture leaders’ “floating” the idea — like when Donald Trump teased reporters about seeking a third presidential term in a conversation before his election defeat in 2020. We don’t include this type of remark, because it never resulted in a concrete proposal to change term limit rules.

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Our research shows that personalist parties are clearly responsible for the bulk of efforts to curb term limits over the past quarter-century. Splitting the sample into ruling parties with low personalism scores (below average personalism) and those with high personalism scores (above average), we find that high party personalism is associated with leaders who attempt to change term limit rules in about 3.8 percent of years, which is more than three times as often as where party personalism is low (1.1 percent of years).

These results hold even after considering a variety of factors, such as cross-country differences, levels of democratic consolidation (which we measure as the age of democracy as well as the initial level of democracy when a leader is first elected to chief executive), the popularity of leaders and their legislative support, and whether the leader’s party is populist (measured using the Varieties of Parties data).

Our research helps make sense of what’s happening in El Salvador. Bukele created his party, New Ideas, just before the 2019 race to launch his ascension to the presidency. As such, it is the quintessential personalist party. With few constraints on Bukele’s ambitions from party elite, passing term limit extensions was a breeze. And that move makes it more likely that Bukele will further entrench his rule in the years to come.

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Erica Frantz is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Joseph Wright is a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University.

The authors are writing a book entitled “The Origins of Elected Strongmen: How Personalist Parties Destroy Democracy.”

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