Bolivian politics are not usually the stuff of Hollywood movies. That’s changed this year, with Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton starring in George Clooney’s “Our Brand is Crisis.” Based on a 2005 documentary, the film is about the 2002 Bolivian presidential elections that pitted U.S.-raised neoliberal businessman Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada against a rising, “populist” leader, Evo Morales. Goni’s fear-mongering campaign warned Bolivians that if Morales won, he would turn the country into a socialist dictatorship.
Fast forward to 2015. Morales is going into his 10th year as president, while Goni languishes in self-imposed exile in Bethesda, Md. This February, Bolivians will vote on a popular referendum to change the constitution allowing Morales to run for reelection for a fourth time. The opposition parties argue that Morales should not be allowed to seek reelection, because if he wins, it would signal the end of democracy in Bolivia.
If the referendum passes, it could mean that in the next presidential election in August 2019, Morales and his political party—the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS)—would likely hold power until 2025, keeping him in office for almost 20 years. Critics fear that if it is approved, the referendum could lead to an authoritarian state like that in Venezuela, where Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver who was Hugo Chávez’s foreign minister and later vice president, took over the leftist-populist regime after Chávez’s death in 2013. Chávez was in power from 1999 to 2013, leading the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
What does political science research tell us about the importance of term limits within democracies, especially for leaders who are elected democratically? How worried should Morales’ critics be?
The answer is mixed. Some notable liberal democracies—including Germany, the U.K., and Canada—do not limit their leaders’ terms. That lack of limits works best in parliamentary systems, where the parliament checks the leader’s power.
The arguments for and against term limits
The idea of limiting the terms of political office can be traced back to ancient Athens, when Aristotle wrote that “no office should ever be held twice by the same person,” arguing that limits on the length of time in office will prevent concentration of power as well as the rise of corruption.
Some modern scholars find no evidence that term limits cause economic or political inefficiencies—such as inefficiency in public expenditures or the increase of anti-competitive conditions. Some argue that unlimited tenure allows good leaders to remain in power—and that term limits are antidemocratic, preventing citizens from voting for the leader they want.
Yet other scholars argue that term limits can be good for democracy in several ways. They decrease the chance that the government becomes corrupted and personalized. They can help prevent the president from becoming a quasi-monarch, increasing the chances that political parties will take turns in power. And they contribute to the liberalization and democratization of political regimes. By this, such scholars mean the increase of civil liberties and respect for human rights, such as freedom of expression and the press. They also mean the increase of multi-party competition based on clear ‘rules of the game’ to allow peaceful removal of incumbents and their replacement by opposition parties.
In the Americas, we see cases of long and short term limits. Simón Bolívar, the hero of South American independence from the Spanish Empire, believed that the absence of term limits might lead to tyranny, but he paradoxically also favored a life-long president in the republican constitution he wrote for Bolivia in 1826. He stayed in power as president of Gran Colombia (the state comprised of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and parts of Peru and Brazil) from 1819 until 1830, the year of his death. George Washington established the practice of American presidents serving only two terms. This tradition remained until Franklin D. Roosevelt, who held four consecutive terms. Only after Roosevelt, in 1951, was the Constitution amended to formally limit presidents to two terms.
But why do we now accept that the alternation of power is an important feature of democracy? As we see in the map below, some of the most stable democracies do not limit their leaders’ terms, including Canada, Australia, Japan, India, France, the U.K., Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. Others, such as Portugal, have very long term limits of 10 to 14 years. In the Americas, most democracies are presidential systems, which—because of the greater risk of concentration of power in a single person’s hands— are more likely to limit their leaders’ terms.
All countries with presidential systems have term limits on their top leader. By contrast, most parliamentary systems have no term limits. The assumption is that prime ministers are reined in by their party members far more effectively than are presidents; they know they may face no-confidence votes and are checked by cabinet ministers who are much more independent than those appointed by presidents.
Still, many European democratic leaders have enjoyed power for more than a decade. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who took office in November 2005, is the most notable example in recent history. The German magazine Der Spiegel announced that Merkel plans to run again in 2017. If reelected for her fourth term, Merkel would be in power until 2021, a total of 16 years. That would be fairly standard in Germany, a stable liberal democracy. The first postwar German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, served for 14 years, recently deceased Helmut Schmidt for 12, and Helmut Kohl, of Merkel’s party, for 16 years.
The U.K. and France have also had leaders in office for long periods. Margaret Thatcher was in power between 1979 and 1990, for a total of 11 years. In France, the socialist Francois Mitterrand remained as head of state for 14 years, while the rightist Jacques Chirac lasted 12 years. Pierre Trudeau led Canada for 15 years. Had Stephen Harper not lost the recent Canadian federal election to Trudeau’s son Justin Trudeau, Harper could have led the country for 14 years.
What do the data tell us? That genuine democracy can be compatible with the absence of term limits or with very long terms. If each country’s constitution establishes regulations that are followed strictly, one person can, in theory, stay in power for as long as 15 years without necessarily breaking down the democracy, as we can see from the examples above.
But the nation’s other institutions must be strong enough to check that leader’s power. Morales’s opponents in Bolivia might want to pay as much attention to those as to term limits, should they lose.
On Feb. 21, the people of Bolivia will go to the polls to vote on the referendum that will decide whether Morales ought to be allowed to pursue another term in office. While there are arguments that favor formal term limits, the political science research does not necessarily rule out a legitimate democratically-elected leader who remains in power for a long period. Although Bolivians may be concerned about the approval of the referendum and what it could mean for the future of their democracy, longer term limits do not necessarily lead to a democratic crisis.
Diego A. von Vacano is associate professor of political science at the Texas A&M University. Thiago Nascimento da Silva is a PhD candidate in the political science at Texas A&M University and a research associate at the PERG Research Center.