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Sun 27 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Presidential control freaks ruin democracies

Several Latin American leaders have contracted a potent virus called tyrannous flu, feels Alexandre Marinis.

Presidential control freaks ruin democracies

Several Latin American leaders have contracted a potent virus called tyrannous flu.

The main symptom is a painfully tight grip on the levers of power, and it strikes leftists and right-wingers alike.

This isn't good for the region. If enough politicians get this disorder, the rest of the world will begin to think of the continent as a heap of power-crazed tyrants, none of whom merit investors' attention, or dollars. That's pretty much how these countries appeared 20 years ago.

Manuel Zelaya's thirst for power cost him the presidency of Honduras. In June he was dragged out of the presidential palace in his pajamas in Central America's first military coup since the end of the Cold War. A leftist pal of president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Zelaya tried to push a referendum to change the constitution, enabling him to run for re-election in November.

The latest victim is Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe. He's trying to change the country's constitution so he can run for a third consecutive term. A constitutional court is reviewing the matter.

Latin America's democracies are experiencing what scholars call hyper-presidentialism - the dominance of the executive branch over the legislature and judiciary. It's an unhealthy concentration of power that's achieved by using decrees to bypass other institutions, weakening political parties and changing laws to suit a ruler's needs.

The attempt by leaders to concentrate their power is seen in almost every country in the region.

Whether this process turns a country into one that's friendly - or hostile - to investors depends on several issues: the president's ability to control the government and political parties; the degree to which the media is intimidated or silenced; and how long the president remains in office.

Taking any one of these steps far enough can undermine a democracy. Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, recently showed her reverence for democracy by hammering the press. She sent 200 tax auditors to intimidate the country's largest media group after it published articles accusing her government of corruption.

Chavez nailed all three. He abolished term limits, weakened the judiciary and silenced dozens of Venezuelan radio and television stations.

The latest example of presidential excess is in Colombia, which US investors had favoured.

In 2004 Uribe successfully persuaded congress to amend the Colombian constitution to allow him to run for a second consecutive term. His critics accused him of bribing legislators with jobs and money for their favorite pork barrel projects.

Colombia's highest court is currently investigating more than half of the country's 166 representatives.

Earlier this month, a slim majority of Colombia's lower house ratified a previous vote by the Senate and approved holding a national referendum to allow Uribe to run for a third straight term. The measure must be approved by a constitutional court. Uribe appointed most of the court's members, but there's no guarantee the president will get his way.

Colombian law requires that at least 25 percent of eligible voters participate in the referendum to validate its result. Although 58 percent of voters say they intend to fill out a ballot, according to the latest Invamer Gallup poll, the government is worried. In 2003, a referendum failed because too few people voted. To boost the turnout this time, the government may pad the ballot with other questions such as whether pedophiles should face lifetime prison sentences or whether water service should be privatised.

Uribe, who leans to the right and has a 70 percent approval rating, hasn't said whether he'd run in the 2010 election if voters approve the constitutional change. Many of his supporters say Uribe is simply buying time to prevent a premature breakup of his coalition. The Colombian constitution prohibits the president from supporting office seekers.

We will soon find out whether Uribe is just stalling. Colombia's constitutional court might take until mid-December to rule on the referendum, which must be held no later than February. The presidential election is in May.

Uribe is showing some of the symptoms of tyrannous flu. We'll see if this is a false positive or the real McCoy.

Alexandre Marinis, political economist and founding partner of Mosaico Economia Politica, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.