by Austin Sekel
There is nothing new under the sun, yet recently many leaders internationally have either openly ignored the idea of term limits or begun dismantling them. These strongmen believe that they – and they alone – are uniquely qualified to lead their countries for decades on end but experts to the average Joe resoundingly agree: no respectable state should ever lie in the hands of one person.
The American Revolution represented the largest disassembling of centralized power in human history. Following in our footsteps, around the globe dozens of kings, queens and monarchs alike stepped down in fear of freedom or were forced out of office and replaced with democratically elected leaders whose biggest difference was not necessarily ideology, but their inability to serve in the same office for life. Executive leaders that reject term limits fundamentally ignore the crystal clear differences between a democracy and monarchy, it has nothing to do with ideology or the old left versus right debate.
What George Washington accomplished, limiting himself to only two terms in office as a President – while turning down appeals to become a king – was the most radical and monumental reform in governance. His deep understanding of liberty is best understood by putting his legacy into perspective, currently over 70% of countries have term limits for their heads of state.
In places where term limits are absent, opponents love to exclaim how, “we already have term limits, they’re called elections”. They must have missed the recent re-election of Russian President Vladimir Putin to his fourth, six-year term with well over 75% of the vote. This reminds me of the old authoritarian proverb, “I care not of who votes, but of who counts them”.
Leaders like Xi Jinping, the president of China, have startled every supporter of term limits by completely gutting his. Though China has remained a Communist country since 1949, not until 1982 were term limits established for future presidents, requiring them to abdicate their office after serving two consecutive five-year terms. This was done with the intent that no one will rule for decades on end like their previous leader Mao Zedong had but Jinping abides by the same philosophy, supreme authority. Out of the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, he believes that he alone is the only person capable of holding such office.
Like any typical dictator, Xi waited for his popularity to rise to its height near the end of his first term before announcing his intention to remove term limits. Two weeks later, the Chinese legislature swiftly voted in favor of Xi’s measure to amend their Constitution and reaffirm his presidency- for life. The outcome of the vote further attests to his iron grip, out of the massive 2,963 member legislature: 2,958 members voted yes, 2 voted no and 3 were absent.
Another recent attempt to lengthen term limits comes surprisingly from South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In where one would assume term limits are of the utmost importance. The administration claims that longer tenure will help ease relations with North Korea. But the entire reason tensions remain at an all-time high with their neighbor to the north is explicitly due to the lack of term limits for North Korea’s executive. As the Washington Post recently published, leaders who attempt to lengthen or abolish their term limits were most commonly ousted in violence or remain in office for decades on end.
President Pierre Nkurunziza is using the oldest trick in the book to double his tenure by setting up an unscheduled and unwanted referendum to amend their constitution. But this election comes with a catch – literally. If you refuse to participate and vote, you can be thrown in prison for up to three years. Following a civil war that lasted nearly a decade and resulted in the death of over 300,000 people; rebel leader Pierre assumed control and eventually became Burundi’s President in 2005. Their constitution states that the President can serve no more than two, five-year terms. Citizens, civil rights leaders and even the U.S. State Department rightly pressed the President to step down in 2015 because of term limits and to abide by the Arusha agreement (a peace agreement that ended their civil war). But Nkurunziza and his cronies assert that he was only technically elected once so in typical fashion he ran for a third term and unsurprisingly won. Now on May 17th, voters will “choose” to lengthen or keep the terms limits as is. Of course, the only people calling to have this abrupt referendum are from the government itself which has yet to even publicly release the ballot language for an election less than two weeks away. Coincidentally there has been a sharp rise in human rights violations including acts of violence being committed by the Burundi national government ever since Pierre refused to leave office three years ago. Burundi is the first country to ever leave the International Criminal Court and is currently being investigated for multiple state-sponsored crimes against humanity.
Idriss Deby has been the President of Chad since 1990, but he isn’t done “serving” just yet. Instead of amending his countries constitution, he wants to write an entirely new one. This new constitution will abolish the office of Prime Minister and the High Court of Justice (equivalent to our Supreme Court) and will not retroactively mandate term limits. Instead it will lengthen the term from five to six years and set the limits for no more than two terms. The parliament voted in favor of this measure 132 to 2 and set the next election for 2021. Incumbents are re-elected 90% of the time, so expect to see Deby in office until 2033 which would total a whopping 43 year tenure.
Earlier this year, President Ali Bongo Ondimba altered their countries constitution allowing him to serve indefinitely as head of the state by a vote from Parliament amongst other fundamental changes. The vast majority of citizens have never seen another leader aside from Ali reign, given the fact that his father Omar Bongo was President from 1967 until his death in 2009 where his son succeeded him after a tumultuous and corrupt election. That last election in 2016 brought about much violence and even the burning of Gabon’s parliamentary building. Ultimately the family dynasty has retained and expanded it’s power.
Good news at last! The current constitution of Ethiopia contains no provision for term limits for their head of state, but new Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed has instead made a pledge to add this needed amendment in the near future. His predecessor Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was the first executive to step down in Ethiopian history. This is unchartered territory for one of the Earth’s oldest nations, which can trace its roots back to the 2nd millennium BC. 1991 brought about Ethiopia’s first democratic election, but until now, leaders have stayed in office until death or being overthrown. Ethiopia is the second most populous in Africa but also one of its poorest. Three cheers to new beginnings!
President Obama witnessed and advocated against many international leaders who chose to ignore the principle of rotation in office. In Rwanda, Nicaragua, Congo and more, leaders were pressured by the White House to honor the rule of law and in some cases were stripped of millions in financial aid, but sadly all ultimately ignored these pleas. President Trump and the State Department have also followed in his foot steps and made similar efforts to push for competitive, open seat elections abroad.
Diplomacy is always a means to preserve peaceful transitions of power and should be pursued first and foremost in international affairs, but the number one way we can influence leaders abroad is by setting a good example, just like President Washington did and Prime Minister Ahmed are doing. By limiting themselves, every nation sees a clear example of the highest standard of freedom: term limits.
Towards the end of his tenure Obama officially endorsed the need for congressional term limits and likewise during the end of his campaign for President, Trump too endorsed the idea. One might say that we live in divisive times, but when we look at term limits, it’s perhaps the only issue bridging the gap between liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans and everyone in between. The most recent polling shows over 80% support for congressional term limits, so it comes at no surprise that this past week President Trump has again voiced his support for this desperately needed change in Washington via Twitter.
Considering America is the birthplace of executive term limits, we’re unlikely to see them fade away. This means we should look elsewhere to spread this necessary reform, like in Congress. Sadly diplomacy has fallen on the deaf ears of despots, term limiting Congress would do our country a much needed service and inspire people internationally to once again muster up their strength and fight for freedom again.
Austin Sekel is a Staff Member for U.S. Term Limits, follow him on Twitter @AustinSekel