Term Limits for Presidents – Why?

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Buenos Aires in one of the largest anti-government marches of President Cristina Kirchner’s five-year rule. Pot-banging activists denounced what they view as Kircher’s increasing authoritarianism, including a crack down on the media, and expressed their fears that she will remove constitutional term limits in order to retain power.

In 2009, fourteen months after his first attempt failed, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez won a referendum to eliminate term limits, allowing him to win the elections in 2012 and rule for a third six-year term. The elimination of term limits in Venezuela paved the way for Chávez to rule far into the 21st century to carry out his socialist transformation of this oil-rich country.

In a recent interview, asked if he thought presidents should be able to run for more than two terms, following a break period between the second term and the next campaign, Bill Clinton said : “[i] believe that should be the rule, and I think that as a practical matter you couldn’t apply to anyone who’s already served.” So, Bill Clinton, one of the most popular presidents in the United States in modern history, appeared to agree with the elimination of limits for presidents as long as there was a break period between the second term and the next campaign.

Term limits have roots in ancient Greece, where beginning in the 6th century B.C. many Athenian officials were elected by random lottery and permitted to serve only a year. Some of their Roman counterparts were also limited to serving just a single term. At the end of the 18th century, many of the framers of the fledgling United States—the first major modern democracy—also put stock in the idea. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among those who considered term limits an important way to check individual power.

President George Washington originally started the tradition of informal Presidential term limits by refusing to run for a third term. The Confederate States of America adopted a six-year term for their President and Vice-President and barred the President from seeking re-election.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first and only American President to break Washington’s tradition successfully. He died in office a few months after starting his fourth term. This gave rise to a successful move in Congress to restore the two-term tradition in the Presidency. As ratified in 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment provides that “[n]o person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice…”

Supporters say term limits hold politicians accountable, usher in fresh views that shake up static power structures, and mitigate an incumbent’s advantages. Opponents argue that in addition to creating lame ducks, term limits snatch away the public’s fundamental right to choose their elected officials. However, in a time of great chaos such as after the Great Depression and during the Second World War, might not a country benefit from the steadying hand of a trusted and proven leader as it happened in the US with FDR? Much of what FDR was able to accomplish may have been a direct result of his tremendous power and the opportunity to affect change that may only be possible with a longer term in office.

Is the elimination of term limits a viable option for nations that need stability of governance; or are term limits necessary in a democracy in order to prevent a strong President from using the undoubted advantages of incumbency to win election after election?

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