Latin America’s Former Presidents Have Way Too Much Power

The problems with delfinismo go beyond intensified polarization by exacerbating political fanaticism and can lead to even greater problems. In Mexico until the 1990s, where presidents essentially handpicked their successors, former presidents typically observed the norm of retiring from politics, granting the successor sufficient autonomy.

But in the most recent version of delfinismo, successors are not that lucky. The sponsoring former presidents keep meddling. This interference produces governance travails. The sitting presidents either become premature lame ducks, with all eyes turned to the former presidents’ views, or eventually seek a break from their patrons. Splits can unleash nasty civil wars.

Such breaks are often inevitable. Elected delfines face new realities that sponsors never confronted. Frequently they have to clean up messes their sponsors left behind.

Lenín Moreno, the current president of Ecuador, who was selected by Mr. Correa, broke with him on a number of leftist-authoritarian policies, prompted by revelations of corruption. The result was a power struggle that splintered the ruling coalition and hindered the government’s ability to cope with the economic crisis and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

A similar battle occurred in Colombia when President Juan Manuel Santos, chosen by the then president Álvaro Uribe, decided to make peace with guerrillas, defying Mr. Uribe’s preference. The result was a near civil war between those men that rivaled in intensity the war against guerrillas that the government was trying to settle.

There is no easy solution to this type of continuismo. Parties need to stop placing their former presidents on a pedestal. They need to reform primaries to ensure leaders other than former presidents have the means to compete internally. Latin American countries have done a lot to ensure strong competition among parties, but less so within parties.

Nothing screams oligarchy and corruption like a former president trying to stay alive through surrogate candidates. And Ecuador has demonstrated that this political maneuver may end up also empowering rather than weakening the very same political ideologies the former presidents were trying to contain.

Javier Corrales is a professor and the chair of the political science department at Amherst College.

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