Peru and Ecuador: Cases of Risky Institutional Designs

Following Latin America’s democratic transitions in the 1980s, confrontations between legislative and executive branches controlled by opposing political forces produced institutional crises in many countries that seriously affected governance.


Source: BBC.

Originally published in Spanish in Diario Libre.

Following Latin America’s democratic transitions in the 1980s, confrontations between legislative and executive branches controlled by opposing political forces produced institutional crises in many countries that seriously affected governance. Presidents, rather than being in positions of strength faced the impossibility of implementing their government programs and necessary economic reforms to face financial and economic crises of indebtedness due to the obstruction by legislative bodies.

The most emblematic case of this institutional blockage was that of Peru in the early days of the Alberto Fujimori presidency. He found himself unable to pass legislation due to an opposing congressional majority. This led Fujimori to take the extreme step of committing a “self-coup,” dissolving the legislative body by decree, and holding irregular and unconstitutional elections to elect representatives to a constituent assembly that would write his own Constitution and allow him to obtain a congressional majority. Other countries experienced similar processes, albeit not as climactic as Peru’s political drama.

In this context, specialists in Latin American politics—most notably prominent political scientist Juan Linz—assessed that it would be better for Latin American countries to replace their presidential systems with parliamentary systems. They believed that this would eliminate the strong and intractable blocks between the legislative and executive branches. The central argument was—continues to be—that since parliamentarism allows the parliamentary majority to elect the prime minister, there is greater flexibility in case there is a need to replace the head of government before general elections are scheduled. However, despite multiple constitutional changes in Latin America throughout the 1990s, no country transitioned from presidentialism to parliamentarism.

Instead, some countries adopted institutional mechanisms from parliamentary regimes and grafted them into their presidential systems. This in turn created new institutional crises that affect stability and governability. Again, the case of Peru is notorious. The Peruvian Constitution allows Congress to pronounce a “presidential vacancy” for “permanent moral and physical incapacity”—rather imprecise, undefined, and manipulable condition. This has become nothing more than a mechanism that allows the removal of the president by the legislative body. Similarly, in certain circumstances, the Peruvian President has the authority to dissolve Congress, another feature typical in parliamentary systems. This creates challenges that are are exacerbated by the fact that these relatively simple—in terms of rationale, procedures, and types of majority to remove presidents—mechanisms have been combined with runoff elections. This is a highly risky combination as presidents elected through a runoff, particularly polarized electorates, do not always achieve sufficient congressional mandates. This in turn leads the opposing majority in Congress to seek to use impeachment mechanisms. This occurred in the case of leftist President Pedro Castillo of Peru.

A similar situation occurred in Ecuador, albeit this time with a center-right president. In the 2021 elections, Guillermo Lasso obtained 19.74 percent of the votes (1,830,172 votes) in the first round, while candidate left-wing Andrés Arauz obtained 39.6 percent of the votes (3,033,791 votes). As neither obtained the requisite votes, this forced a runoff election. The runoff changed radically: Lasso obtained 52.36 percent of the vote (4,656,426 votes), while Arauz obtained 47.64 percent of the vote (4,236,515 votes). This was due to the fact that multiple political and social forces converged in support of Lasso to prevent the Correaista candidate from winning. Despite a resounding victory for Lasso in the second round, his political party—Creado Opportunidades (CREO)—only obtained 12 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly. This put him in a position of extreme weakness.

As in Peru, the Ecuadorian Constitution incorporated features typical of parliamentarism that allow the legislative body to relatively easily dismiss the President, while allowing the latter to dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections. This latter process is known as a “muerte cruzada.” The opposition parties that controlled Congress decided to initiate a process to remove President Lasso, invoking rather vague rationale, including criminal cases that have not been prosecuted or proven in any court and have nothing to do with his presidential performance. Initiating this process only requires 88 votes. For the decisive vote to remove Lasso, the opposition only needed four more votes (92 in total). However, President Lasso decided to use his authority to dissolve Congress and ask the electoral body to call new elections. In the interim, the country will be ruled by decree and controlled by the Constitutional Court.

These features typical of parliamentarism have created a true constitutional challenge. As both the legislators and the President obtain their legitimacy directly through the popular vote, the Legislative branch should only impeach and remove the president in exceptional circumstances. However, in Ecuador, 92 votes would allow for the removal of a president who came to power two years prior with more than 4 million votes. This in turn resulted in President Lasso resorting to the old adage that “either we all carry the can or none of us does.”

Fortunately, the Dominican Republic has not implemented these types of institutional reforms. Although the formula for runoff elections was adopted in 1994, the Dominican Constitution does not have any of the elements of parliamentarian systems grafted to it that would incentive opposition-controlled congresses to try to remove presidents or for Presidents to dissolve Congress and call early elections. In addition to this institutional design, the restraint and maturity of Dominican political parties and leaders have been extremely important factors in maintaining the stability and governability of the Dominican Republic. Despite their deficiencies, preserving and strengthening political parties is fundamental to sustaining and consolidating democracy in the Dominican Republic.

Flavio Darío Espinal is a former Ambassador of the Dominican Republic to the United States of America and the Organization of American States (OAS), in which he also held the positions of Chair of the Permanent Council, Chair of the Committee on Legal and Political Issues, and Chair of the Committee on Hemispherical Security. He is also currently serving on Global Americans’ International advisory council, works as a managing partner of FDE Legal, and writes a regular column in Diario Libre.

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