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Not for ever, Evo

26 February 2016 By Martin Langfield

Bolivian President Evo Morales, in office since 2006, has narrowly lost a referendum that could have allowed him to lead the Andean nation until 2025. He is far from the first Latin American boss to seek to perpetuate his grip on power. Yet even pragmatists who manage to slash poverty shortchange the poor by trying to stay. Strong institutions, good governance and the rule of law matter more.

The country’s first indigenous president until recently had benefited from high commodity prices that let him spend generously on welfare programs and infrastructure. The World Bank credits his government with both prudent macroeconomic management and an impressive reduction in poverty. But voter concerns about cronyism undermined his bid to change the constitution so he could run again in 2019.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, also praised by the World Bank for reducing poverty since taking office in 2007, has flirted with sticking around too. The National Assembly changed the constitution late last year to allow indefinite re-election of Ecuador’s president and legislators, though Correa, criticized for creeping authoritarianism, now says he won’t run in the next polls in February 2017. A return in 2021 is possible, however.

In Brazil former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose policies lifted millions out of want, arguably has tried a different form of self-perpetuation. He backed former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff as the candidate of his Workers’ Party in 2010 and 2014 presidential elections, which she won. Any thoughts he might have had about succeeding Rousseff have been dealt a crushing blow though by a massive corruption scandal at state oil firm Petrobras, falling commodity prices and economic mismanagement that have led to the worst recession in decades.

As economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James Robinson wrote in their 2012 book “Why Nations Fail,” prosperity derives in large measure from strong, inclusive institutions like an independent judiciary, not systems ruled by the few for their own benefit. In Brazil the Petrobras probe has reflected growing power of the rule of law. Morales accepted the referendum result against him, albeit reluctantly. In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro, successor to strongman Hugo Chavez, accepted a defeat in 2015 National Assembly elections, won by the political opposition. Both men ultimately did their nations’ poorest a favor.

 

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