The new authoritarianism

A third strategy, which has had remarkable success in Latin America in particular, is to challenge the very legality of term limits in court. This strategy constitutes about 15 percent of evasion attempts since the turn of the millennium. In Nicaragua, for example, President Daniel Ortega was able to successfully remove term limits from his nation’s constitution by arguing that they were a violation of his human rights. The court, reasoning from a body of constitutional and human-rights law, agreed. A similar story unfolded in Bolivia and Honduras. In fact, though one might be tempted to put faith in judges to prevent executive overstay, our study found that courts are remarkably pliant. With the important exception of Colombia, where the Constitutional Court blocked Álvaro Uribe’s attempt to extend his term a second time, courts tend to sign off on term-limit evasion in all its guises.

A fourth strategy, also constituting about 15 percent of evasion attempts, is what we call the “faithful-agent strategy,” which involves presidents seeking a successor they can control, so that they can continue to govern even while formally out of office. Putin was previously able to extend his own rule using this strategy. He took office in 2000, when Russian presidents were limited to two consecutive terms of four years. In 2008, rather than simply moving aside or seeking to overstay his legal term as president, he stepped down, endorsing a handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as president. Medvedev promised to nominate Putin as prime minister if elected. With Putin’s endorsement, Medvedev easily won the presidency, and very shortly after taking office he oversaw a parliamentary vote confirming Putin as prime minister. For the next four years, Putin served as a potent prime minister to the relatively inert President Medvedev. After constitutional reforms passed in that era, Putin could return to two more consecutive presidential terms, now extended to six years each. Thus, without violating the law, Putin has maintained an iron grip on power for 20 years; he is the longest-serving Russian head of state since Joseph Stalin.

Finally, a small handful of presidents were able to stay past their term by illegally delaying or canceling elections.