Will A New Breed Of Strongman Undermine Latin Democracy?

Democracy blossomed in Latin America after the collapse of military dictatorships in the 1980s. But relentless pressure for economic reform has put a premium on strong leadership and delayed the strengthening of the region's democratic institutions. The price for that delay may be stiff: Tough leaders, judging themselves to be indispensable, are tempted to hang on to power by any means.

Voters in some countries seem willing victims. Impatient with democracy's slowness to deliver economic benefits, they are pinning their hopes on strongman candidates. Former dictator General Hugo Banzer was elected president of Bolivia last year, for instance, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, pardoned after a failed 1992 coup, is ahead in polls for December's presidential elections. And in Paraguay, General Lino Oviedo, who threatened to overthrow the government in 1996, would probably have won the May 10 election if the Supreme Court had allowed him to run.

Alarmingly, the antidemocratic bug is also infecting large countries in the region. Presidents Carlos Menem of Argentina and Alberto Fujimori of Peru, for example, both want legal changes that would allow them to run for third terms. Both previously engineered constitutional amendments to get their current terms. Now, they will have to manipulate the rules yet again to stay in office. Menem's blatant power play "hurts the country's institutions, which are already weak," says political analyst Manuel Mora y Araujo.

Worse yet, Menem's personal ambitions could ultimately hurt Argentina's economy. As his popularity drops to record lows, he becomes increasingly spendthrift. Recently, he recruited former pop singer Ramon "Palito" Ortega into his government with a $2 billion budget to bankroll social programs. A pharaonic plan to build a 10,000-kilometer highway network would cost a cool $10 billion. The International Monetary Fund fears that such extravagance--on top of expected current-account deficits of 4.8% of gross domestic product--could mix an "explosive cocktail."

Menem still goes through the motions of respecting democratic norms when it suits him. His political advisers asked the courts to rule that the constitution doesn't prevent him from running in next year's election. But it was an empty gesture. The issue has reached the Supreme Court, which Menem packed with supporters. And he doesn't hesitate to use draconian press laws against publications he doesn't like.

Peru's Fujimori doesn't even bother with appearances. Since winning power in 1990, he has trampled over democracy. He frequently uses the army and intelligence services to enforce his rule. And last year, he unceremoniously dumped several judges after they had handed down a ruling that would make it harder for him to contest the 2000 election. He has since managed to remove virtually all obstacles to running again.

It doesn't have to be this way. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso didn't whistle up the army or stack the deck in the courts. Instead he labored to win two 60% votes by Congress for a constitutional amendment that allows a second four-year term. Without another term, analysts say, Cardoso's reforms would die on the vine.

But in half a dozen elections scheduled in Latin America over the next year, voters will be put to a severe test. Armies are safely in their barracks and don't want to get into politics again. The real danger for democracy is that populist politicians are trying to reassert the power of an old-fashioned, self-perpetuating, civilian autocracy.

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