South Americans question re-elections for leaders

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) — On a continent haunted by a history of dictatorship, nascent democracies hoped to discourage tyranny by embracing the one-term limit for elected officials.
But popular presidents have emerged, and lawmakers eager for stability are rewriting constitutional rules in one country after another to give presidents more time in office. Brazil’s congress is expected to be next.
Critics fear the trend could give rise to a new breed of “democratic dictators.”
“The guy is elected and re-elected, then he puts his wife in for a term, then his son,” said Antonio Delfim Netto, a former Brazilian finance minister and foe of re-election. “We re-establish the monarchy.”
Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies convened Tuesday to consider amending the constitution to allow re-election of the president, state governors and mayors. Allies of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso say they have votes needed to pass the measure and make him eligible to run for a second four-year term in 1998.
“Re-election represents political stability, and that’s what Brazil needs today,” said Rep. Wellington Moreira Franco, a Cardoso supporter. The yearning for stability runs deep in a region long beset by military coups, leftist guerrillas and stratospheric inflation. Ironically, many countries prohibited re-election to protect democracy from abuses by incumbents.
That was the rule in Peru when Alberto Fujimori took office in 1990. Two years later, he threw out the constitution and closed Congress, saying he needed special powers to fight corruption and guerrilla insurgents.
Fujimori also privatized money-losing state companies. The move put workers out of factories and provoked a recession — but it helped curb Peru’s hyper-inflation.
In 1993, he called a constituent Congress to write a new constitution, allowing re-election. Peruvians overwhelmingly re-elected him in 1995 to a second five-year term.
Now, he has his sights set on a third term in 2000 — and he may not be done.
“It was Fujimori who began this anti-democratic retreat on the continent,” political analyst Fernando Rospiglios said in Lima. “There’s no doubt that if (he) attains this objective, he will try to be re-elected for a fourth term, and then a fifth.”
The recipe was similar in Argentina. When President Carlos Menem took office in 1989, he inherited a restless military and an annual inflation rate of nearly 5,000 percent. He corralled the armed forces, tied the peso to the dollar and cut the inflation rate to a single digit.
In 1994, Argentines changed the constitution to allow Menem to run again, and his campaign played on their worst fears. “It’s me or chaos,” he warned, and handily won re-election with nearly 50 percent of the vote.
However, his autocratic style of rule-by-decree has some Argentines alarmed.
“Menem has developed a monarchical type of power,” said Eduardo Barcesat, a constitutional lawyer.
It’s no secret he wants another shot in 1999. And not surprisingly, Menem has been a big supporter of Cardoso’s own re-election bid.
Cardoso’s popularity is based on the success of the economic plan he crafted as finance minister in 1994. Within months it brought 50 percent monthly inflation down to under 2 percent and propelled Cardoso to an easy victory in October elections that year.