Are Political Term Limits Good or Bad?

12/11/2019

I will admit that I have very little knowledge about the situation in Bolivia, other than the fact that a right-wing military, OAS, and US backed coup has toppled the country’s left-leaning and first Indigenous leader after controversy relating to the recent elections escalated. With a little context, however, it may be a good topic to discuss the role term limits have in politics.

The elections undertaken in October have been thrown into disarray after incumbent President, Evo Morales, was ousted. Similar to other countries, like Venezuela, one can say whatever they like about their government, but anywhere a US or military backed coup takes place, the replacement government will undoubtedly be worse. Given Bolivia’s large lithium resources, increasing in demand, that the US and the OAS would be interested in inserting a manageable leader should come as no surprise.

Morales first came to power in 2006, and in 2009 a new constitution was put in place that ‘reset’ his term. He was limited to two 5 years terms, and a referendum carried out to remove term limits, allowing him to run again, was narrowly defeated. The Supreme Court, however, deemed term limits unconstitutional and did away with them. Morales then, obviously, ran for a third term this year after his time was originally supposed to be over.

Now, again I stress I don’t know much about Bolivian affairs. I have heard some arguments saying that the Supreme Court were all loyalists to Morales and that his running in the recent election is illegitimate. From what I have seen, however, there is still a sizeable amount of support for him, especially in Indigenous and rural areas, and most of the polls I saw that led up to the election reflected that. The results that came from the election in turn reflected the polls, but due to murky processes and reporting, it’s impossible (at least from what I’ve seen) to deduce exactly how legitimate any results are at this stage.

Morales was willing to undergo another election to deal with these discrepancies, but has since been forced to flee, along with many others, with more arrested. Videos and images have emerged of Indigenous flags being burned, and the military and police have, from what I’ve gathered, set the less popular opposition party into power. Arguments as to whether Morales was becoming increasingly authoritarian in his own right or not aside, to label this as anything less than a coup against an elected leader would be disingenuous.

But to take a few steps back and put Bolivia aside, is there a point to be made about term limits? Is limiting the number of them a leader can take and the number of years they can entail a positive or a negative thing for countries and democracy? There is, I believe, a relatively simple answer, but it would be prudent to go over the pros and cons of the concept.

Pros

The first thing many people think when it comes to abolishing term limits, or increasing them, is that it’s an opportunity to allow authoritarian leaders to consolidate their rule and maintain power for longer than should be acceptable. An obvious case of this would be China’s President, Xi Jinping, making himself leader for life of the CCP, essentially confirming what everyone already knew – China is a dictatorship.

Ensuring a set, low number of term limits for leaders, like the US or Bolivia before the Supreme Court ruling, or having short term limits to allow for more frequent voting like Australia, is one way to prevent one leader or party from being in control indefinitely. In Australia’s case, a kind of middle ground, we have elections approximately every three years, but a party can have the same leader so long as they don’t step back from the position or the party overthrows them.

It means that the position is not something that should be sought out as a means to remain in power, but as something that is undertaken with the intent to set some change (preferably positive) in motion. That is in theory; this doesn’t stop self-serving and corrupt people from doing whatever they please in the window they have available.

Term limits also allow for a fresh perspective. Even if the same party stays in power, a change in leader as national and global circumstances change offers a shift in how things are approached, which should be encouraged. That is not to say that people can’t also shift their perspectives with the times, but the more ideas that are out there being discussed, the better it is for everyone.

Cons

Australia and the US are two great examples of why short terms are a nightmare. In the US, and increasingly in Australia, the whole election affair is overly mediatised and runs more like a show to be consumed rather than a process to be engaged in. Every few years, rather than any real focus on policy, everyone gets drawn into this dramatised game where political opponents take every opportunity they can to attack each other.

It becomes less about what they as an individual or a party can offer the people and more about making sure that they are ones who get elected. Here in Australia, it’s bizarrely worse in one aspect, and that is the backstabbing that has left us without a stable government since 2012. Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison. With the exception of Gillard taking leadership of the Labor Party, every one of those turnovers were in anticipation for an upcoming election.

Abbott was never going to win the 2016 election for the Coalition, so an LNP “moderate”, Malcolm Turnbull, threw him out. In 2018, when Turnbull was unlikely to win the 2019 election due to his inability to hold the Party together, he was challenged by Peter Dutton, resulting in Scott Morrison jumping in and somehow recovering in time to win the recent elections here. This chaotic leader swapping has left this country without stable leadership for years, just a string of opportunists looking to stay relevant long enough to win an election.

Another con is sort of the opposite of the “fresh perspective” pro – the idea of implementing a vision. There are so many projects and ideas that take a long time to bring to fruition, but a change in leaders or party can throw these into disarray. One example of this is the NBN in Australia. Labor’s vision for it, whether it was delivered “on time”, was a worthwhile investment. Once the Coalition got in, however, bank rolled by Murdoch, a man who profits from a tattered NBN, the entire project was cut, resulting in subpar technology being used, an overblown budget beyond Labor’s estimates, and a rollout that has taken years longer than promised. To top it off, the whole thing, a disastrous use of public money, might end up just being privatised anyway.

But would things have been different if Labor had won in 2013? Quite likely. It probably would have gone overtime and overbudget, but at least it would have delivered what was promised, not the half-arsed effort the Coalition crumbled it into. Some things just cannot be done within three or even six years, so shouldn’t legitimately positive ideas be given the time to unfold?

Let the People Decide

Term limits have merits, but ultimately it should be up to the people. Any authority, should it exist, needs to be representative, fully engaged with by those who they are representing, and should be able to be taken down at any time. Rather than being based on some arbitrary limitations, it should be based on the will of the people. If there is a popular leader or group who is doing good for their electorate and the country at large, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to continue in that position as long as the people allow it? Or if someone is unpopular, why should we wait 3 years to depose them?

In our current system (putting aside the whole anti-State argument for now), being able to have more immediate and dynamic control over who we have leading us would be preferable. With the threat of the people removing them from power at any time, not just during a flashy election, elected officials would be more (in theory at least) in tune with what their electorate wants. You can hold them to account on certain issues – if your MP fails to deliver on their promises, why should they retain power? Why should they be given a chance, come election time, to propagandise themselves?

But if your representatives are legitimately doing well in their role, and your community is benefiting from their leadership, why sully that by enforcing limits on how long they can work for you? Obviously there would need to be rigorous monitoring of public opinion, and people would need to be free to voice support or discontent for their leaders and actions taken on their behalf. So long as those basic elements are in place, there is no reason why someone with majority support couldn’t keep implementing a vision agreeable to the populace.

Of course, we could always just do away with authority and the State…

 

Liked this? Read Why Anarchism?

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