ON NOVEMBER 8TH Luis Arce took office as Bolivia’s president following his clear victory in an election last month. A day later the man who picked him as a candidate, Evo Morales, was greeted by adoring crowds as he crossed into Bolivia from Argentina, a year after fleeing his country after protests over electoral fraud. Mr Arce, who was Mr Morales’s finance minister, insists he is his own man. His former boss, who ruled as an increasingly authoritarian socialist strongman for 13 years, “has no role in the government”, he said. But some Bolivians believe Mr Arce will have Mr Morales breathing down his neck.
Mr Arce joins a small but growing band of proxy presidents who owe their jobs to the sponsorship of a more powerful leader. In Colombia Iván Duque was an inexperienced senator when he was elected to the top job in 2018 thanks to the backing of Álvaro Uribe, a conservative two-term former president who was barred from re-election by term limits. In Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president in 2007-15, struck a deal with Alberto Fernández (no relation) whereby he ran and won in 2019, with her as his running-mate. Ecuador may be next. Rafael Correa, the country’s strongman between 2007 and 2017, hopes to return to power via a proxy candidate, Andrés Arauz, a young economist. Mr Correa lives in Belgium and has been convicted of corruption in absentia.
The rise of the proxy president is partly a result of term limits and partly a consequence of the commodity boom of the 2000s, which helped leaders fortunate enough to be in office at the time to become popular and politically strong. The gambit sometimes backfires. Mr Correa thought he would control things by choosing Lenín Moreno, his vice-president, as his party’s candidate—only for his successor to turn on him. Mr Uribe reluctantly backed Juan Manuel Santos, his former defence minister, to succeed him in 2010. The two men soon became bitter foes. In Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-10) chose Dilma Rousseff to keep the presidential seat warm for him. Ms Rousseff outmanoeuvred him to run for a second term, only to be impeached for breaking budget rules.
When the gambit works it causes even bigger problems. A proxy risks being a weak president, carrying the can for decisions inspired by a sponsor who exercises power without responsibility. Take Colombia: Mr Duque is a moderate who in 26 months has yet to put his stamp fully on his own government. Mr Uribe is seeking to abolish a special court to investigate war crimes set up under the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas negotiated by Mr Santos. Mr Duque, meanwhile, must defend his implementation of that agreement before the UN and other bodies. Security has deteriorated under Mr Duque. His former and current defence ministers are people close to Mr Uribe with no previous security experience. Prominent members of Mr Uribe’s party campaigned for Donald Trump in Florida. Mr Duque must now deal with his victorious opponent, Joe Biden.
Mr Fernández, a more substantial politician than Mr Duque, is struggling to project authority, too. His controversial vice-president, a leftist-populist, continues to control the street in Buenos Aires’s rustbelt. Mr Fernández has imposed the world’s longest lockdown, which delayed rather than curbed the coronavirus. It increasingly looks like a sign of political weakness. The government pulled off a restructuring of its debt with bondholders but failed to capitalise on that by launching a credible economic plan, perhaps because of the difficulty of getting agreement between the two leaders. Mr Fernández is paying a political price for a plan for a judicial reform that seems designed to save his running-mate from corruption charges.
That is an example of the underlying problem that proxies face. The interests of their sponsors are not necessarily those of the country. Mr Uribe appears to be pursuing a personal vendetta against his enemies and seems to want to install another proxy in 2022 by continuing to polarise Colombian politics. Mr Correa wants revenge, too, and like Ms Fernández wants control of the courts.
As for Mr Arce, he has named a cabinet in which only the defence minister is close to Mr Morales. Their party, the Movement to Socialism, is broad-based, and includes people critical of the former president. Mr Arce has no illusions about Mr Morales. “He’s not going to change,” the new president said. If so, sooner or later Mr Arce will face a choice: impose his own authority or lose it.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “The problem of proxy presidents”