The concept of term limits is an old one, dating at least to ancient Greece. In the United States, term limits were debated by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton but written into law only in 1951, part of a late-20th-century boom in the concept. According to a study by Boniface Dulani, a lecturer in political science at the University of Malawi, by 2009 almost three-quarters of all presidential political systems had some kind of legal limit on tenure.
China's own presidential term limit was spelled out in the 1982 constitution, which sought to fix the mistakes of the chaotic Mao Zedong period. But if term limits can be put in place, they can also be removed. China would not be the first country to make this shift.
Alexander Baturo, an academic at Dublin City University in Ireland who studies term limits, has found that about 60 presidents “from Latin America to post-Soviet Eurasia” managed to extend their stay in office in one way or another in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. In general, efforts to remove term limits seem to be successful — 79 percent of legislation aimed at removing term limits has passed, Dulani found when he looked at 48 countries that discussed the removal of term limits.
What happens to presidents who abolish or alter term limits?
While there are numerous differences among each of these situations, in general we can break down the eventual outcome of these cases into three groups:
- The “stepped-down-willinglys.” There are world leaders who removed or extended term limits but later stepped down willingly. For example, Fernando Henrique Cardoso extended Brazil's one-term presidential limit to serve a second term, but he stepped down at the end of that term in 2002.
- The “rulers-for-lives.” Then there are the rulers who stay in office for the rest of their lives after term limits are changed. Major examples here include Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, four years after term limits were abolished, and Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek, who oversaw the exemption of the presidency from two-term limits in 1948 and remained in office until he died in 1975.
- The “ousteds-against-their-wills.” Finally, there are the leaders who leave office after term limits are abolished — but only begrudgingly. For example, Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had slowly removed term limits over his 23 years in power; he was overthrown in 2011 during the Arab Spring and fled to Saudi Arabia.
In addition, we will have to include another category for those cases in which the eventual fate of the leader is not known:
- The “too-soon-to-tells.” There are a considerable number of world leaders who did away with term limits and are still in power. Among the longest-serving leaders on this list is Cameroon's Paul Biya (since 1982), Uganda's Yoweri Museveni (since 1986), Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev (since 1990), Tajikstan's Rahmon Emomali and Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko (both since 1994), Rwanda's Paul Kagame (since 2000), and many others.
What does this mean for Xi?
While the fate of this last group remains unclear, the strongest evidence we have suggests that a term-limit-avoiding president may be more likely to become an “ousted-against-their-will” than a “ruler-for-life.”
In his book “Democracy, Dictatorship, and Term Limits,” Baturo suggested that though leaders who abolished or otherwise avoided term limits did tend to stay in power longer than their peers who didn't, they were more likely to be ousted from office or assassinated.
Looking at 47 world leaders who extended their time in office during the period between 1960 and 2010, he found that only eight had died in office, while 13 had stepped down and retired and three had lost reelections. More than half of the total number, however, had been violently ousted from office (18) or assassinated (five).
“The irony of course is that for the majority of such leaders, they would be personally better off if they depart from power when required and enjoy political afterlife,” Baturo said in an email.
Whether this will apply to Xi is unclear. Unlike most of the countries included here, China is not even nominally a democracy, and the inner workings of its top leadership can be hard to ascertain. It's also worth noting that other world leaders have managed to cling to power without abolishing term limits — Russia's Vladimir Putin being the most noteworthy example.
By seeking to avoid term limits, Xi may be doing away with the relative stability ensured by his predecessors, who had abided by the two-term system installed in 1982. The removal of term limits is “an important institution that demarcates dictators proper from other strong leaders” and may signal a shift toward personalized politics in China, Baturo said. And, in general, personalized regimes are not only less democratic but also more politically volatile.
For now, however, Xi is a “too-soon-to-tell.”
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