Term Limits and Democracy


With the third wave of democracy, which began in the 1970s, most countries instituted presidential term limits stipulating limits on the number of times presidents could be re-elected. Since then, an increasing number of countries have abandoned these limits, leading many observers to identify yet another piece of evidence that authoritarianism is on the rise. This phenomenon has been especially evident in Latin America where term limits have been a long-standing feature of constitutions; from the nineteenth century, reformers have sought to limit the hold on power of personalistic caudillo leaders. The link between authoritarian leadership and the removal of term limits was highlighted recently when President Trump was reported to have applauded Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of that country’s two-term presidential limit, remarking that “its great. . .[that] he was able to do that.” The obvious conclusion is that countries should strive to maintain or re-institute term limits in order to restrict unscrupulous authoritarian and increasingly populist leaders.

Arguments for and Against Term Limits

Fat Guy no term limits.jpg

There are, of course, various arguments in support of the removal of term limits. One of these is the argument that term limits restrict voter choice, particularly when a popular leader is prohibited from running. Another is that continuity in office provides chief executives with the time for reforms to demonstrate their positive impacts. Many more arguments, however, stand in favour of chief executive term limits. Indeed, observers generally link respect for term limits with high democratic quality, as countries less likely to remove term limits demonstrate stronger adherence to the rule of law. Further, supporters of term limits insist that fresh blood and new ideas should have access to the highest office of the land. More critical observers suggest that the absence of term limits allows for an inordinate concentration of power over time, arguably increasing the opportunities for corruption and opening the way for other restrictions on democracy. Scholars have often linked the elimination of term limits to authoritarian presidents’ pursuit of self-interest through expanding their political power, entrenching their control of office, and amassing personal wealth through increased corruption.

However, the removal of term limits cannot be explained by presidential priorities or actions alone. Presidential popularity, as reflected, for example, in share of the popular vote, may well open the way (through executive control of legislatures and judiciaries) for far-reaching constitutional reforms that undermine democracy—Venezuela being a case in point. However, an important question to ask is: What other conditions underlie the drive to eliminate term limits? After all, leaders do not remove term limits on their own; they usually must obtain the support of Congress, and they need public quiescence, if not public support to accomplish such a change.

The Underlying Conditions

Leaders, in contexts of electoral democracies (albeit usually problematic ones) face conditions in which there is a notable fraying of the rules of the political game. Hence the desire to remove term limits is usually just one aspect of a broader skepticism and disrespect for liberal democratic institutions. This disrespect is usually also manifested in other types of manipulations such as the stacking of judiciaries, the (sometime questionable) use of referenda, and other practices that enhance the power of the presidency.

The underlying conditions at the root of such maneuvers is uncertainty and fear. Most recently this fear and uncertainty arises from growing political polarization. Political polarization involves an increasing distance between positions at the extremes of the political spectrum in contexts where the out-of-power opposition, although possibly disunited and fractured, still has the possibility of obtaining office. Importantly, the differences in positions between the two extremes are profound. Hence, rotation in office is usually regarded with a certain degree of fear and trepidation as it presents the specter of reversal of either entrenched privileges or of recent policy gains. A look back at Latin American history shows how resilient this process has been.

Peronism, the end of term limits, and Political Polarization in Argentina

In the 1940s, a wide swath of Argentine public opinion was profoundly disillusioned with the fraudulent operation of the country’s electoral system—a system that excluded social reformers from political power. It was this context that brought Juan Perón to the presidency by a substantial majority in 1946 (53 percent of the popular vote). In 1949, Perón amended the constitution to allow the president to run for an unlimited number of six-year terms—but this was but one measure of a panoply of manipulations through which he sought to consolidate power. Peron subsequently won by 63 percent in the 1951 election. Peronism in power united a significant proportion of the population in opposition to business and landed elites, who had little interest in improving social conditions, which, by all accounts improved markedly during the period that Perón was in power. The extent of political polarization, already substantial when Perón came to power, increased even more in the decades to come. With the military coup of 1976, Peronists were imprisoned, tortured, and eliminated.

The Struggle over Term Limits is a Power Struggle

Supporters of Evo Morales running for a fourth term

Supporters of Evo Morales running for a fourth term

Hence, the struggle over term limits has to do with domestic power struggles, in which contenders for power have come to see those struggles as zero-sum—even when they have a substantial hold on power through strong electoral support. Those who rail about the universally non democratic nature of the Latin American countries where term limits were removed need to reflect on the fact that presidential overrides of term limits (as in Argentina in the 1950s) have often not impacted negatively on popular support, have usually required congressional agreement, and have occasionally had considerable public approval. (Venezuela, 2009; Nicaragua 2014). Bolivia’s Evo Morales ran successfully for a third term in violation of the country’s 2009 constitution, winning 60 percent of the popular vote While the Bolivian public rejected the removal of presidential term restriction in 2016, the decision was reversed by court decision in 2018. Evo Morales could win the Bolivian presidential election nevertheless.

What can we conclude from this? Although the manipulation of term limits is a stratagem to consolidate power, the removal of term limits also responds to a much broader and deeper problem than simply a leader’s desire to consolidate personal power and wealth. Removal of term limits also operates independently of the ideological position of the political leader.

The Case of Honduras: Term Limits and Holding onto Power

Former president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya

Former president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya

Consider the case of Honduras, a country with a long tradition of term limits (a firm ban on presidential re-election) and political exclusion of popular demands. In 2009, a military coup ousted popularly elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, a leader who took a turn to the left, pursuing measures to address deprivation by raising the minimum wage, expanding social programs, and improving infrastructure. He also sought citizen approval for the establishment of a Constituent assembly—a move that aroused the ire of the political opposition, which accused him of plotting to change term limits. Zelaya was removed from office in 2009 by a military coup supported by the country’s landed and business elites. Fraudulent elections in 2013 led to the election of conservative President Juan Orlando Hernández, a strong coup supporter and key figure in the replacement of four of five Honduran Supreme Court Justices. Shortly thereafter, the court overturned presidential term limits, a move seen as entrenching the political right in power. The new regime has pursued neoliberal restructuring, resulting in mass layoffs in the public sector, increased taxes, reduced subsidies on energy and transportation, and a decline in government spending on social programs. Protests and repression ensued.

Attempts to override term limits usually thrive in contexts of uncertainty and fear. Recall that the U.S. constitutional amendment restricting presidents to two terms came into effect following the election to a fourth term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country’s Depression and wartime president—before that, the convention had been two terms. Today one major feature of that uncertainty is political polarization. It could well be that Trump’s ruminations about the removal of term limitations resonate with his supporters, who already have misgivings about the fairness of the electoral process. While the removal of term limits is linked to the quality of democracy, this phenomenon is best understood as reflecting democracy’s deeper underlying problems—uncertainty, fear and political polarization.