Soon after my article about the ambiguous stance in Ecuador towards human rights was published, President Rafael Correa and his ruling party, Alianza País, submitted a proposal to the national assembly to end the two-term limit for the presidency. Alianza País has a majority in the national assembly. My initial reaction to the news was one of dismay. Dismay due to the undemocratic implications, and dismay due to the all too familiar scenario of a leader initially appearing to uphold democratic principles and then reneging in favour of a potential lifetime of power.
I mentioned this change to a German friend of mine who is familiar with Ecuadorean politics, but he did not share my dismay. Why? Because in Germany the Chancellor, the effective head of state, does not have a term limit. I also only learnt since then that the UK’s Prime Minister also does not have a term limit. Considering the reaction of the West to situations such as the lifting of term limits in Uganda and the previous lack of limits in Zimbabwe, surely this is hypocritical? Here I explore the history of term limits and the arguments for and against this feature of democracy that I used to think was undeniably a good thing.
The very first term limits date back to Ancient Greece, like many features of modern democracy. Many officials in Athens were selected by a random lottery and had a term limit of a year or less. Fast-forward to eighteenth century America and the founding of the US constitution. Heated debates took place on the issue of term limits, and it was eventually left out. The constitution was only amended to its current two-term limit in 1951 after Roosevelt had served four terms in office as he was regarded a capable leader during WWII. Many of the states included provisions for term limits on governors from the outset. In the UK, term limits has never really been a popular policy, as represented by just four signatures on this e-petition to the government in 2012 to propose a ten-year term limit on the Prime Minister. There has been an accepted difference in the need for term limits between presidential and parliamentary systems due to the variation in accountability mechanisms.
In order to assess the desirability of term limits we have to go back to basics. Elections provide voters with the opportunity to punish or reward their leaders based on their policies whilst in office. Politicians are held accountable for their actions and have to answer to the electorate. With the presence of term limits this mechanism is eroded since an incumbent has little incentive to serve public interests if they know they will be leaving office. Moreover, it means that term limits reduce the power of the electorate as they are unable to retain a leader who they are happy with. This is Correa’s argument for changing the constitution, he sees his persistent widespread popularity as a mandate to continue the Citizens’ Revolution beyond 2017, or at least to give the people that choice.
Bizarrely, research has shown that in fact the prospect of indefinite re-election does not necessarily invoke public-minded policies as could be expected and could in fact be helpful for voters. With no prospect of indefinite re-election, politicians are more likely to show early on their ‘true colours’ if they aim to introduce policies close to their private preferences, and this enables the voters to vote with fuller information the next time round. Moreover, term limits prevent the occurrence of issues such as ‘stability bias’, that is, a psychological preference for the status quo rather than taking a risk on change. In the context of Latin America, term limits are regarded as important to buck the trend of authoritarian presidents for life as seen in Venezuela and Nicaragua, to name just two examples.
It may seem like an oversimplification, but to me term limits are arguably bizarre given that in very few other jobs do we impose such limits. Assuming it takes a while in any position to learn the ropes and do the job properly, is it absurd to apply the same logic to the most important post in the land? Perhaps the debate is focused on the wrong problem. It is an easy feature to hone in on as democracy is a complex and messy system, but this should not lead to ignoring bigger problems such as a lack of ongoing accountability to the electorate during office, or skewed voting systems which rule out real change. The jury’s still out.