How the Dominican Republic successfully resisted presidential term extension
Popular mobilisation and dangers of splitting his own party forced President Medina to abandon his desire for a constitutional reform allowing for his third term. While the Dominican democracy may have dodged a bullet, Medina’s decision increases the risks of seeing an ex-president return to office - writes Professor Marsteintredet.
With elections coming up in less than a year, the Dominican Republic has found itself in the biggest political crisis since the fraudulent elections in 1994 that set in motion the latest transition to democracy. The cause was a controversial drive to relax presidential term limits to allow President Danilo Medina (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana, PLD) to run for a third term. In a country that has already reformed its presidential term limits a record four times since 1994 (1994, 2002, 2010, and 2015), this conflict should come as no surprise. The crisis, which paralysed Congress, threatened to split his party, and endanger democracy, finally ended when President Medina, on July 22, in a national televised speech announced he would not seek a constitutional reform to allow for his second reelection. Popular mobilisation and demonstrations (which provoked military deployment to protect the legislature), the fear of ruining his own party and a series of polls showing that this reform was widely unpopular likely swayed Medina’s decision, and may teach us something about how to successfully resist presidential term extensions. But, although the country dodged a bullet, removing the incumbent from the next presidential election increases the threat of ex-presidents returning.
Term limits central to the democratic cause
Presidential term limits have been at the centre of political life and conflict for almost a century in the country. In 1872, Buenaventura Báez was the first president to remove term limits altogether. The 1872 Constitution only lasted two years however. In 1896, president, and dictator, Ulíses Hereaux introduced consecutive re-election (only to be assassinated in office three years later). President Vásquez's reform to reintroduce consecutive re-election in 1929, however, is considered to have had a more devastating effect by paving the way for the 31-year rule of Dictator Trujillo who ruled until he was killed in 1961. The first modern, democratic party, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), was founded in 1937 with an anti-re-election program, making the fight for democracy synonymous with the anti-re-election cause.
The Dominican Republic later became the only country in Latin America to democratize during the Third Wave without presidential term limits as President Joaquín Balaguer's 1966 Constitution had no term limits. Despite electoral fraud, PRD managed to hinder Balaguer winning a fourth term in the 1978 presidential elections and by this force a democratic transition. Although against re-election, the PRD was unable to implement term limits before Balaguer returned to the presidency in 1986. Re-election and fraud caused another crisis in 1994 when Balaguer sought his 7th presidential term. The outcome of international mediation was a ban on consecutive re-election, but with a possibility for ex-presidents to return after at least one period out. This reform, accompanied by judicial reforms, constituted the country's second democratic transition, completed with Fernández’s (PLD) election in 1996.
In 2002, however, President Hipólito Mejía of the anti-re-election PRD reformed the Constitution to allow for re-election once, meaning that after serving two terms, ex-presidents would not be able to return. In midst of a deep economic crisis Mejía in 2004 became the third incumbent president in the history of Latin America to lose immediate re-election, and the first to do so in a fully democratic context (Presidents Balaguer in 1978 and Ortega in Nicaragua in 1990 both lost as incumbents, but these elections also constituted transitions to democracy). The 2002 reforms meant that the ambitious President Fernández, first elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, was seeing an end to his presidential career in 2012, at the age of 59. Fernández thus set in motion a major constitutional overhaul in 2009-2010 ostensibly to modernise and democratise the country's 1996 Constitution. While the reform was the most inclusive and participatory constitutional process in the country's history, many suspected that President Fernández’s main motivation was to enable his own return to politics. The 2010 reform banned consecutive re-election, but put no limits on the return of ex-presidents after sitting at least one term out of office. Fernández thus satisfied popular demands to ban immediate re-election, while creating an opening for his return in 2016.
President Medina, reelection, and a Blair-Brown dispute
In their last terms, Dominican presidents are constantly confronted with rumours and pressure to reform the Constitution to allow re-election. In addition to four reforms, President Fernández tried and failed twice to relax term limits. For presidential acolytes, re-election secures them the perks of power for four more years, and even if the president himself is not interested in re-election, keeping his options open postpones and reduces the lame-duck period. In fact, President Medina alluded to this in his speech when he pointed out he had been approached by business and party elites trying to convince him to seek another reelection. While all reforms to relax term limits provoke crisis, the recent quagmire was aggravated by a personal conflict between President Medina and ex-president Fernández going back to 2007. And while the democratic crisis was avoided by President Medina’s (forced) modesty, the PLD’s internal crisis is likely to continue.
President Medina functioned as Chief of Staff during Fernández's first and second periods as president, and was PLDs losing candidate in 2000. After Fernández was elected president again in 2004, it was under an agreement that Medina, who always held a strong position in the PLD, would be the party's presidential candidate in 2008. When Fernández backtracked on the deal and beat Medina in the party's primaries in 2007, Medina stated that he was beaten by the State (and, allegedly, by Fernández's corruption). So, when Medina was first elected president in 2012, he distanced himself from his predecessor and was considered a breath of fresh air in Dominican politics.
Under the 2010 reforms, Medina was only allowed to serve one term with no immediate re-election, but he became very popular after his election in 2012. As a payback to Fernández, and serving his own interests, Medina sought a constitutional amendment to allow for consecutive re-election in 2015, reversing the 2010 reform. Although Fernández, still president of the PLD, considered the move a betrayal and fought with all his resources against the reform, the PLD leadership considered the popular Medina the only candidate able to secure the presidency for the PLD (especially if the unpopular Fernández was the alternative). Fernández lost the vote on the reform in the Political Committee of the PLD, and control of the party he remained president of. In exchange for a position in Medina's next administration, the (still) anti-re-election party PRD supported Medina, and the fourth re-election reform since 1994 became a reality. Under the 2015 reforms, a person may only serve a maximum of two presidential terms (therefore reverting back to the 2002 reforms), and a transitionary clause specified that Medina, if he were to win re-election in 2016, would not be allowed to run again in 2020. The reform secured Medina’s re-election in 2016, payback against Fernández's betrayal eight years prior, and de facto control of PLD.
Medina’s botched fifth reform
Almost immediately after Medina was sworn in for his second and last term in 2016, his supporters started talking of yet another reform to secure ‘the best president this country has ever had’ another re-election. The first attempt followed a court challenge to declare the transitory article that prevented Medina from seeking re-election unconstitutional. Although a similar judicial track was successful in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Bolivia, the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal in September 2018 ruled that the Constitution or parts of it cannot be declared unconstitutional.
Motivated equally by hindering the return of Fernández to the presidency as securing another four years for Medina, Medina's supporters then pushed for the approval of another constitutional reform, which would require a 2/3 majority in a joint sitting of the two legislative houses of the National Assembly. The reform drive effectively split the ruling PLD, with Fernández controlling some votes in Congress. Together with the main opposition party PRM (the Modern Revolutionary Party), Fernández had sufficient votes to block a reform. But with the presidential power and purse these votes were not safe, and Medina would likely have been able to get the additional thirty votes he needed to pass another reform.
Therefore, both the PRM and Fernández took the battle to the streets. Fernández has organised a signature drive to stop the reform and led his supporters to protest in front of Congress, and Luis Abinader of the PRM did the same with his supporters in a large-scale protest that demonstrated the unpopularity of the reform. Medina's dilemma was while he was still a popular president, he had little popular support for a constitutional reform, and his opponents were willing and able to mobilise strongly in the streets to prevent it. Thus, the costs of a second term-limit reform in four years was much higher than the costs of thirty votes in Congress (apparently going at about 1.4 million USD each). While popular support is not necessary for a constitutional reform, Medina would have faced an uphill battle to win another reelection, and the reform was likely to harm his own legacy, his party, governability, and democracy. Medina therefore resisted, or was forced to resist, the temptation of power, and with his decision secured his own legacy, but opened the door for the return of an ex-president.
Out with the incumbent – in with the ex-president?
While constitutions should in principle provide a stable governance framework, the Constitution of the Dominican Republic has been subject to frequent reforms. With four reforms since 1994 and a fifth narrowly avoided, constitutional term limits have become part of the country’s day to day politics. It appears that Dominican parties and political leaders have been principled against re-election only when in opposition. The last crisis was therefore to be expected.
One of the most negative consequences of constantly reforming presidential term limits is that it enables both incumbent and ex-presidents and candidates hold a hammerlock over their parties, which become vehicles of support for their leaders rather than organisations for political recruitment and laboratories of democracy. For 2020, Fernández (PLD) and Mejía (PRM) seek their fourth run for the presidency, while Abinader (PRM) aims for his second. In his speech, Medina motivated his decision by the need for new blood and new faces in the political leadership of the country. Although clearly aimed at his nemesis, and three times president, Fernández, Medina’s message is to the point: while the Latin American experience demonstrates that democracy does not survive without presidential term limits, it also demonstrates that democracy often crumbles when ex-presidents return. The lessons from the Dominican Republic is that strategic popular mobilisation may thwart presidents seeking to relax term limits, but also that this often is only part of the problem. It is harder to mobilise against ex-presidents than incumbents, but this should not distort constitution framers and scholars from paying equal attention to how term limits should restrict ex-presidents desire to return to the presidency as incumbents’ desire to never leave the presidency.
Leiv Marsteintredet has written extensively on the Dominican Republic and is Associate Professor at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen.