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Ungovernable governments

In Colombia, restrictions on President Gustavo Petro have come from both Congress and the high courts. In the rest of the region, similar dynamics are happening

Colombia's President Gustavo Petro
Colombian President Gustavo Petro.LUISA GONZALEZ (REUTERS)

“What’s the point of power?” asked Liberal Party politician Darío Echandía, when his supporters asked him to take over the government of Colombia. This was in 1948, amid tremendous riots sparked by the assassination of the popular Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.

Today, several Latin American presidents can ask themselves something similar.

Let’s start with the Chilean leader, Gabriel Boric. The Chamber of Deputies recently refused to even discuss his tax reform bill. He will have to wait another year to present it again. If he wants to do it sooner, he will need two-thirds of the Senate to support him. Local observers hold the executive branch as being responsible for not having achieved an atmosphere of agreement on the bill’s main proposals.

This is another blow to Boric, after the public rejected his proposed new constitution at the polls. Chilean economist Alejandro Mico blames the government’s limited progress on excessive ambition and a lack of realism. Professor Cecilia Cifuentes attributes the setbacks to extreme radical positions, which demonized political negotiation and led to the loss of the population’s support. Going forward with reforms again would require the Boric administration to change its attitudes.

In the case of the former president of Peru, Pedro Castillo – who was impeached and arrested in December of 2022 after attempting to shutter Congress – his administration repeatedly presented the proposal for a constitutional reform through the convening of a constituent assembly. It was a key proposal made by his government, but was defeated in a congressional commission. Shortly before that, the same Congress had limited key executive tax initiatives, aimed at increasing taxes on income and mining royalties. Once again, a mixture of political inexperience and an excess of optimism ruined governability.

In Ecuador, the hostile opposition has blocked most of the initiatives of President Guillermo Lasso, while the Constitutional Court accepted the request to open impeachment proceedings against him. Lasso could potentially dissolve the National Assembly and rule by decree… but that would be a reckless course of action.

In Colombia, the restrictions on the tenure of President Gustavo Petro have come from both Congress and the high courts. The first branch of government rejected a constitutional reform, which would have limited the ability of congresspeople to occupy ministries and switch parties. Suspicions about the president’s hegemonic intentions weighed down on the reform.

The Council of State, meanwhile, prevented – by decree – the president from becoming the de facto regulator of the electricity sector. Finally, the Constitutional Court warned that it was willing to invalidate laws that it considered contradictory to the constitutional design of the country. Petro’s health reform proposal has also been shot down by several political parties, while his labor market and pensions reforms are in limbo, as they are viewed with suspicion by businesspeople and contributors to the pension plan.

Let’s end our journey from south to north with Mexico, where the scope of the three key constitutional reforms sought by the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) have been curtailed. They have to do with electricity, the National Guard and the electoral law. The opposition has been so significant that, in early January, the government announced that there would be no more constitutional reforms.

The electrical and electoral initiatives were rejected as constitutional norms. Instead, they had to be approved as secondary laws. The National Guard proposal was approved thanks to support from the opposition PRI… but although the Mexican Army is allowed to have crime-fighting functions, the National Guard’s transfer to the Ministry of Defense was not approved. The suspension of the electoral reform will be in force until the Supreme Court decides the outcome, since it may be in violation of the political-electoral rights of the citizenry.

As in Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, the Mexican Congress and the Supreme Court have limited the discretion of the executive. We could similarly review the experience of Macron in France with his pension reform, or of Netanyahu with his judicial overhaul… but the evidence from these five Latin American countries is enough to reveal a kind of “immune system” that defends institutions against certain modifications.

The aforementioned Latin American governments came to power with the promise of carrying out profound reforms that would change the economy, politics and society as a whole. Perhaps the most dramatic case was the proposal for a new constitution in Chile, which was written by the Constituent Assembly and ultimately rejected at the polls.

Castillo in Peru was not allowed to get to the point of asking Peruvians via referendum whether or not they wanted a new constitution. Petro and AMLO have sought changes in political, electoral and energy issues that have either been rejected by their countries’ legislative branches or have been curbed by the judiciary.

Some will argue that political and economic elites are resistant to change. This can close the doors to democratic transformations. Based on this type of reflection, other ways of direct participation of “the people” have been suggested, even if they are to the detriment of representative democracy.

But it’s not just the elites. Street demonstrations indicate that the discontent with the proposed reforms is more widespread, going beyond the media and elites. Ironically, many of these Latin American leaders used to encourage these kinds of demonstrations, before becoming victims of the change of sentiment.

An alternative perspective is that these presidents have made a mistake in the scope of their agendas, which contemplate excessive and risky transformations that are difficult to process. This is added to their lack of knowledge about the mechanisms of the legislative branch.

Achieving political consensus requires dialogue and negotiation with the opposition. By avoiding this and imposing agendas, the final result is weak.

One must also consider that maybe these limitations are the best thing that can happen to governments. Presidents seek to be right… but they must also avoid being wrong, especially when it comes to serious matters. When the institutions tell the elected leaders that this or that reform crosses the line of what is admissible and could endanger key services, such as health and pensions, or would have undesirable consequences in the economy, perhaps they are acting like the good friend who warns you about a mistake you are about to make.

Be that as it may, as a Mexican friend noted, “we have discovered that the institutions are stronger than we thought.” This is of immense value… even if it’s at the expense of new governments finding that they cannot advance radical agendas and feeling like it’s impossible to govern. These events have definitely given new validity to Darío Echandía’s question: “What’s the point of power?”

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