An (Undemocratic) Case for Term Limits

While presidential term limits guaranteed by the United States Constitution are a key function of American democracy, this concept isn’t necessarily universal. Term limits have been notoriously manipulated throughout Latin America, such as in Venezuela’s controversial constitutional referendum in 2009 and Honduras’s more recent radical and bizarre leap from a rigid one-term limit to a complete removal of the presidential term limit. We often regard political term limits as preventive measures against authoritarianism. However, with instances of the manipulation and elimination of term limits in several nations, a significant question arises: Should abolishing term limits be denounced as authoritarian and unlawful, or hailed a genuine and sometimes necessary effort to protect a just regime against a potentially harmful interference?

While there is no internationally binding law that forces countries to establish term limits, they are implemented in many countries as a means of preserving certain universal democratic principles. Most countries with a presidential system have term limits to offset the wide-ranging power of the office and to ensure that opposition political parties have a level playing field with the incumbents. Countries with a parliamentary system, on the other hand, rarely have term limits, as their leaders serve with the confidence of the parliament. This confidence could theoretically last indefinitely, whereas the confidence of an electorate in a presidential system is by definition temporary. Therefore, term limits can be seen as a way to fix the flaws of a presidential system, but in the meantime, they can give rise to new problems.

First and foremost, term limits are often misunderstood. Term limits generally prohibit re-election, restrict the number of consecutive terms an official can serve, or forbid any consecutive re-election. The elimination of term limits doesn’t mean that existing presidents retain their position indefinitely. It simply guarantees that they can run for the presidency in any number of upcoming elections. If the incumbent president has a high approval rating, the citizens have the option of letting him continue — an option some Americans yearned for during the most recent election season. In fact, bills have been proposed as recently as in 2015 to repeal the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution. Although these bills have not passed and the presidential term limit remains, democracies around the world such as Japan, England, Australia, and India do not have term limits on acting heads of government. This has not had significant, measurable consequences on the quality of their democracy, as citizens from these countries continue to exercise similar rights and privileges as those held by citizens in the US.

The power distribution created by term limits depends on the political contexts under which they were enacted. For instance, Latin American democracies tend to structurally consolidate power in the government and the administrative courts. Citizens or independent parties often lack the resources to either penalize or challenge those who seek re-election under constitutional mandates that prevent such a bid. Given that political competition is already weak in many of these democracies, abolishing term limits can turn a political oligopoly into a political monopoly. In turn, this enables progressive democratic outcomes to be reversed by authoritative regimes that are not held accountable for their governance. Corruption can also run rampant in the ensuing system. A case in point is Honduras: Its one-term policy was suddenly overruled in April 2015 by the Supreme Court, which declared that the policy was unconstitutional and restrictive of free speech. There were suspicions that this ruling was a result of political tampering by incumbents. In other cases, sitting presidents with unlimited state resources at their disposal have been able to create loopholes in constitutions to expand their mandates. In these solutions, while people theoretically have the option to not re-elect the incumbents, they are re-elected 90 percent of the time due largely to their unrivaled access to resources and finances.

Thus, it appears that eliminating term limits can be problematic in certain circumstances. The longer a president remains in power, the more independent parties and other competitive political parties decrease their participation in politics. This can result in political and economic stagnation, as a country is unlikely to progress if one political party prevails disproportionately and lacks the competitive incentive to push through broadly supported policies. Such a de facto one-party system facilitates the creation of self-interested policies that may harm a large proportion of the population. Moreover, without diversity in governance, the scope of opinion diminishes and the country may fail to see political innovation. This wide expanse of power can also lead to a great deal of unsupervised corruption and uncontrolled influence. The mobility of such a non-term-limited constitution can be in part worsened by a presidential system, which already converges too much power in too few hands.

While the idea of abolishing term limits may contradict our theoretic notions of a democratic society, such policy changes aren’t by default undemocratic, and can even facilitate good governance

Term limits have the potential to be an important method of checks and balances in a presidential system, but this regulation can also go too far. As a result of the 1910 Mexican revolution against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico has since enforced severe term limitations to ensure that almost no one can get re-elected. However, rather than establish the foundation for a stable government, this policy has instead resulted in the rise of a corrupt, gridlocked system. So while Mexico can ensure that no president can sustain vested interests, presidents’ interests directly dictate the politics of the country for the duration of their tenures. Such stringent limits hence ironically create the perfect environment where the president becomes the most powerful member of the party. As term-limited presidents don’t rely on their popularity with the people, they may be incentivized to enact policies that serve their political interests rather than those that serve the public good. In creating lobbyists and politicians who are more concerned with their careers, term limits indirectly affect the quality of life for the private individual.

Moreover, the lack of a steady civil workforce resulting from strict term limits can produce uncoordinated and inefficient governance outcomes. With a mayoral term limit of three years and a presidential term limit of six, Mexican policies established by a predecessor are rarely maintained by their successor. Likewise, bureaucracies undergo considerable personnel change during presidential transitions, leading to little consistency between administrations. For example, uncompromising bureaucratic turnover has delayed Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s push for a revolutionary economic oil policy for a year. In such environments, political parties can become more divisive as politicians and legislators cater to the political parties that give them their next appointment. Indeed, to promote longer lasting policies, Mexico is looking to expand legislators’ terms to 12 years.

Additionally, the argument against eliminating term limits often rests on the claim that such interference involves changing the constitution without voter approval. However, in 2009, then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez won the popular vote in a referendum to amend the constitution’s clause to eliminate term limits. While a similar proposal of his had been rejected 15 months earlier, 54.4 percent of voters supported him in the final referendum. Due to his well-financed oil programs, he had a high approval rating during his term and many wanted him to remain in power. As the 4th most popular president in the Americas, he gained the vote of less financially stable Venezuelans by using the funds obtained from the wealthy oil industry to provide healthcare, education and food subsidies for the poor. Similar scenarios have played out in Bolivia with Evo Morales, Ecuador with Rafael Correa, Colombia with Alvaro Uribe, and Nicaragua with Daniel Ortega. The preservation of existing beneficial policies can be strongly appealing to citizens who are faced with the option of political continuity or change. Hence, while the idea of abolishing term limits may contradict our theoretic notions of a democratic society, such policy changes aren’t by default undemocratic and can even facilitate good governance insofar as they preserve helpful social policies.

All this is not to say that term limits should be abolished for every country. Even in Mexico, the memories of the dictatorship still remain fresh, with streets named “Avenue No Re-election.” But there are merits to changing term limit policies to cater to specific democratic and structural needs. Amendments to national constitutions, albeit contentious, can be legal and beneficial. Abolishing or changing a constitution’s protection of term limits will always be interpreted as self-interested in the short term, especially if enacted by the incumbent president. However, it is necessary for both citizens and governments alike to keep in mind the potential benefits of eliminating term limits, especially as a measure to protect national interests amidst growing international instability.