Image Credit: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation)

Leaders for Life?

For half a century, the continent of Africa stood out as the center of “leaders for life” – politicians who managed to hold on to power for decades. Now that trend is returning to major nations on the world stage. We wonder: Which of the following major countries has the most effective presidential term limits?

A. China
B. United States
C. Russia
D. Turkey

A. China … is not correct.

In 1982, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, effectively introduced a constitutional term limit for future leaders of China. Presidents are limited to two consecutive terms of five years, for a total of ten years.

The primary reason behind his move was not only that Deng wanted to protect China against the re-emergence of another personality cult like that surrounding Mao. Even more important was to avoid the social and economic fallout, as well as the dictatorial excesses, that such a leadership cult can result in.

Deng himself de facto led China for nearly 14 years (1978-1992), holding various offices — but never the presidency or the party leadership.

The next Chinese leaders that succeeded him – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – abided by the two-term rule. They served as Presidents of China each for ten years (from 1993 to 2003 and from 2003 to 2013, respectively).

The Chinese National People’s Congress – the parliament – is expected to ratify the proposal of the Central Committee to abandon the ten-year limit for the office of the president.

The official argument is that the period from 2020 to 2035 is deemed decisive for China’s future. For that reason, it is now deemed inappropriate to force a leadership change in 2023, when Xi Jinping’s term would come to an end under current rules.

There are already considerable worries that a personality cult has evolved around China’s current leader. Since Mao, no Chinese leader has accumulated as much power as Xi has done. For example, Xi’s portrait appears in public spaces all across China, in contrast to less self-promotional leadership under Jiang and Hu. Many potential rivals for power have been swept up in anti-corruption raids or removed for party discipline violations.

B. United States … is correct.

For all the concerns about President Donald Trump’s consistent efforts to undermine the separation of powers, or attacks on the media and the political opposition in often venomous language, he is still bound by a strict two-term limit of four years each. Ratified back in 1951, the 22nd Amendment means that Trump’s tenure in office, if he is re-elected in 2020, would end in January 2025.

The two-term clause was introduced by Republicans opposed to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the social and economic transformation he brought about in the United States when he was elected President four times, serving from March 1933 until his death in April 1945.

The constitutional requirements to loosen or abolish the strict term limit are steep, requiring two-thirds of both chambers of the closely divided U.S. Congress and 38 of the 50 states to approve it.

In 1958, France took a different direction, adopting a constitution with unlimited seven-year presidential terms. Today, after amendments, there is a limit of two consecutive terms of five years each.

C. Russia … is not correct.

In August 1999, Vladimir Putin emerged from the shadows of Russian politics as a complete surprise when Boris Yeltsin named him as Prime Minister and successor in waiting. Yeltsin resigned from the presidency a few months later and Putin has deftly played a game of musical chairs to his own advantage ever since.

Under the Russian constitution, a president is limited to serving two consecutive terms in office. Unlike in the U.S. case, there is no limit on non-consecutive service. For that reason, Putin put Dmitry Medvedev, his chief of staff or deputy prime minister in the years 2003-2008, into the office of President of Russia for four years, essentially so that Putin could re-occupy that post in 2012. The presidential terms were also extended from four to six years ahead of Putin’s return to the position in 2012.

At present, Putin’s combined tenure in both offices already exceeds that of Leonid Brezhnev, the longtime Soviet leader who ruled for the longest period after WWII (1964-1982).

In Russia’s March 18, 2018 elections, Putin is assured reelection to a fourth presidential term. If term limits were abolished, at the end of a fifth term in 2030, Putin would still only be 77 years of age.

If Putin were to stay in power that long, he would have exceeded the length of the rule of Stalin (1924-1953; a total of 29 years) and that of Nicholas II, Russia’s last emperor (1894-1917; a total of 22 years).

D. Turkey … is not correct.

In the bitterly contested 2017 constitutional referendum, Turks narrowly approved a change to make the presidency the dominant executive office in the country with no more prime minister. This completed Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s transition from Prime Minister (2003-2014) to President (2014-present), mimicking Putin’s musical chairs strategy.

The 2017 presidential reforms also meant that the existing limit of two five-year terms, although unchanged, will only be applied beginning with the next term, 2019-2024. Erdogan could therefore serve as president for three consecutive terms until 2029 without modifying the official term limit, bringing his total tenure as Turkey’s leader possibly to as many as 26 years.

Other major countries – usually those with parliamentary-led systems – have no tenure limits for their leaders. For example, Germany’s Angela Merkel is now in her fourth term as Chancellor.

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