Term Limits and Democracy


According to The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, the term limit for heads of state of almost all of the top ten democracies in the world is:
a) two 4-year terms
b) one 7-year term
c) three 4-year terms
d) no term limits
Despite all the discussions on term-limits, the surprising answer is D. The world’s best democracies – Norway, Sweden, Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands – have no term limits. Of that top ten list, only the President of Finland, whose country is ranked eighth, is required to step down after two 6-year terms. The Norwegian Prime Minister’s term, however, has no expiration date.

Term limits for elected officials is a controversial issue, mostly from a belief that democracy cannot exist without term limits. According to Oxford Dictionary, democracy is, “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives,” and “control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.”  In other words, majority rules and people through elected officials have a direct say in their lives. What the dictionary doesn’t say is that term limits are required or that one size fits all.

While many argue periodic change is good for democracy, that can only be true if all leadership is equally good. If a new leader is not as good as the last, then has that change been good?

“Presidents should be allowed to serve more than two terms in office,” said former American President Bill Clinton on Morning Joe, an American news show. “People are living longer, people are developing greater capacities, so I’ve always thought that should be the rule, not to affect me or anyone that’s served, but going forward,” he explained.

Uganda held a constitutional referendum in 2005, and the majority voted to lift term limits. The will of the people was clear, both from the referendum and the election the following year. They did not want change just for the sake of change. The will of the people was that they wanted the same leader for more than a set number of terms. The quality of leadership was what mattered, not the quantity of terms.

A look around the world shows term limits are not as common as some might think. Out of the 50 countries in Europe, there are no term limits in 34, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. Major democracies in Asia, including India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and others with strong democratic systems, do not have term limits. The United States only introduced term limits in 1945, despite having enjoyed democratic governance for almost 170 years.

How does Africa fare in the term-limit tallying? Out of 54 countries, there are no term limits in 17 countries, about 31% of African nations. That’s less than half of the 68% of countries with no term limits in Europe.

Many countries have reconsidered term limits after their introduction. Constitutions are believed to be static documents, but it’s actually the norm for nations to modify aspects of their political systems through amendments.

In Latin America, four countries that previously allowed only one term for their leaders now allow two consecutive terms, and seven others now allow former presidents to serve multiple times as long as their terms are not consecutive.

In Africa, it’s important to remember how term limits were introduced. In most instances they did not emerge from a thorough analysis of the political environment, the will of the people, or an agreement that they were necessary for the development of a democratic system. In most cases, they were simply copied from external models without considering whether they made sense for Africa.

Africa has unique challenges and has since independence been trying to catch up from a much lower base with a world that is constantly developing at an accelerated pace. For many Africans, a great leader is someone to hold onto, not to force into an early and mandatory retirement. Also, Africa has a history of traditional leaders who remain in power for an unlimited time. (Much like the Queen of England.) Many are loved and admired and the people are grateful for the stabilizing influence of these leaders.

Term limits are not a guarantee of democracy. That guarantee comes from building strong institutions and from leaders periodically submitting themselves to the will of the people through credible elections.