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Our ‘elected’ kings need term limits

Isa Senkumba

Our ‘elected’ kings need term limits

Most political debates will always pop out one common term; term limits.


Most political debates will always pop out one common term; term limits. There is a popular belief that in every democratic setting term limits must exist or else citizens risk nurturing despotic leaders who will wish to rule for life. In other words term limits come as a check point and a more peaceful way of transferring power from one hand to another. There is, in other cases, the restrictions are merely on the number of consecutive terms.

When the phrase term limits comes up we are not talking about a new phenomenon. Term limits have a long history.  History has it that Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome are the two early civilizations which had elected offices. What is common about these two is that both imposed limits on some positions; of course for some reasons.

In ancient Athenian democracy, only offices selected by sortition were subjects to terms limits. Sortition involved selecting officers as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. The officers were required to serve for one term of one year for each office, except 500 members of the council of boule.   The boule was a council of citizens appointed to run daily affairs of the city.  It was possible to serve two one-year terms, non-consecutively.

These positions were more prestigious and required the most experience, such as military generals and the superintendent of springs. In the Roman Republic, a law was passed imposing a limit of a single term on the office of censor. The annual magistrates, tribune of the plebs, aedile, quaestor, and consul were forbidden re-election until a number of years had passed.

In modern times many presidential republics employ term limits for their highest offices. The United States placed a limit of two terms on its presidency by means of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1951. The Russian Federation has a rule for the head of state that allows the President of Russia to serve more than two terms if not consecutive like the case of Vladimir Putin.

As parameter and an indicator of democratic governance a number of African countries have embraced term limits. These include among others Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Ghana, Mali, Namibia, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa and others. Egypt also introduced two 4-year presidential terms starting from the 2012 presidential elections.  Some countries like Uganda and Algeria are still skeptical about introducing term limits. Others had them but scrapped them.

With term limits in place, transitions take place as a natural course of events in the democratic system. Politics ceases to be viewed as a zero-sum game. Ruling parties are able to cultivate new leadership which can carry on the successful policies of their former leaders, but also correct for past missteps. They can remake themselves in the public eye and adapt to the dynamic challenges of the world around them. Such has been the case of Chile, where the Concertación has governed for four consecutive terms with four presidents representing three different political parties.

In this arrangement, the opposition is more likely to remain a loyal opposition, rather than try to upset the system, since it can envision taking power one day via a free and fair election. Peaceful transitions in Brazil, Uruguay and El Salvador have helped political parties maintain relevance even when they are not in power. Indeed, public perception of democracy, always a fluid measure of democratic stability, appears to be enhanced in democracies where a transition from one party to another has taken place.

Only term limits can free citizens of unpopular leaders and elected kings. The notion that we should restrict incumbents from permanently holding office primarily arises from the fear that officials who are not restricted will be more prone to corruption, negligence, and incompetence. Unpopular office holders would be much more difficult to remove, requiring impeachment actions. Impeachment is typically reserved for officers who are corrupt, law violating or so incompetent that they danger the public good.

It is believed that imposing term limits simply means bringing light in the darkness of political corruption. Accountability is possible where leaders stay in power is limited. Peaceful and democratic transitions are signs of good governance. Conventional commonsense is likely to tell you that good governance brings about economic and social prosperity. If term limits mean political accountability good governance then it is the way to go.



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