Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Presidential Term-Limits and Democracy

Niger is moving to eliminate term-limits through a referendum. The United States and its European allies have swiftly condemned the referendum and the possibility of incumbent President Mamadou Tandja serving another term as anti-democratic. The attempt to end presidential term limits in Niger is by no means novel. Several other developing countries have also moved to alter their constitutions in order to remove constitutionally mandated limits on the executive branch. In nearly every case, referendums have been the result of presidents appealing for more time to carry out the will of their constituents.

The traditional thinking in the West is that term limits are absolutely necessary to prevent tyranny and the ability of a 'bad' person to become president for life. This belief has been an important aspect of Western liberal democracy for hundreds of years and many continue to believe that term-limits have a universal merit for all human kind. Certainly, there have been a very long list of authoritarian governments that have used the veil of democracy to support their absolute rule. But it would be wrong to argue that there exist no reasonable arguments in support of the elimination of presidential term-limits or to unfairly demonize other countries that try to make them.

Commentators are wrong to immediately characterize every challenge to traditional liberal democratic term limits as anti-democratic. There can hypothetically be legitimate scenarios in which citizens in developing countries desire the ability to experiment with other forms of democracy based upon their own realities. For example, in many unequal developing countries parliaments are often controlled by wealthy elites who favor a weak executive branch in order to prevent any comprehensive attempt at political or economic reform. In another context citizens may favor the policies or programs of an incumbent president to any challenger in the opposition. Term-limits encourage changes in a given course of action but hinder the ability of people to choose continuity.

The effect of short term limits can have a detrimental effects on long-term social and economic planning. In countries struggling with the effects of long-periods of structural poverty and marginalization, development goals cannot always be defined according to 4 or 5 year time horizons. Many of the most successful examples of economic development have come from Asian countries with 15 to 20 year plans. There are many, many countries that have performed abysmally when it comes to poverty reduction and provision of basic necessities that have term limits, with executive branches that lack clearly defined agendas for the long-term---including Nigeria, which was quick to criticize the referendum vote in Niger.

Many intellectuals and policy-makers are resolved to oppose altering a constitution to change term limits even when the majority of citizens in a given country vote to do so. These liberal commentators make the philosophical argument that majority rule can easily lead to tyranny over the minority without "objective" constraints such as term-limits to protect them. However, this reasoning is contradictory and unfortunately often goes unquestioned when raised. There is no objective way to predict that in all cases rule by the majority will lead to tyranny just as it is impossible to assume that representative systems cannot exercise absolute power i.e. oligarchy.

The absence of term-limits does not necessarily give presidents the right to wield absolute power over their citizens. Even in a system without term limits incumbent presidents that perform poorly can be voted out of office in a transparent system. The bigger issue is whether or not there exists transparency, accountability and opportunities for wider citizen participation. The absence of either transparency or democratic participation however, can occur in countries with term-limits and regular elections. Frankly, I think a healthy debate about the limitations of conventional thinking on presidential term limits is long overdue and may actually wind up increasing, not diminishing the prospects of genuine democracy in the developing world.

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