Term Limits Have Purpose

September 1st, 2013 | D. Stone 

"Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently and all for the same reason." - Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz

Opposition to term limits stretches far and wide. A common argument suggests that if voters are truly tired of a leader or representative that they will take the initiative to vote such a person out of office. History, however, hasn't always proven that theory. In a democracy, where voting is voluntary, apathy can often take hold in places where there are fewer options, comfortable wealth, or fear of change. A lack of interest in most municipal and civic elections is a significant cause of apathy and low voter turnouts. In some federal elections, voters might have few options to choose from, like in the US with its dualistic, two-party political structure. In some countries, fear and intimidation may significantly reduce voter turnouts. Whether the cause is boredom, fear, or simple lack of interest, the implementation of term limits can stimulate voter turnouts in countries and municipalities that impose them. 

Term limits also act to better serve all segments of a population by limiting how much power a single leader can hold with their popularity alone. 

Without term limits, an incumbent can consolidate their power over time by building a solid base of support that only a major scandal could disrupt. This becomes a negative if such a base is large enough to win elections, but too small to represent a fair segment of the entire population. Some Canadian liberals (small L and big L) may feel like victims of such a situation under Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Stephen Harper has been responsible for most of the party's success and since the Prime Minister's Office has no term limits, he could continue using his leadership to keep the Conservative Party in power with less than 40% of the popular vote.

Many pundits and analysts attribute the Liberal's long reign to Jean Chretien. Despite the Sponsorship Scandal, Chretien's popularity remained higher than most Canadian leaders at the time. Some believe he could have continued to carry the Liberals to more consecutive majorities, even with popular support below 40%. 

In most Canadian constituencies and civic wards, representatives can serve for endless amounts of time. Eventually, voters either become used to these representatives or they become discouraged at the idea of them winning repeatedly, no matter what. This discourages voting by creating a sense that such an activity would be a waste of time. Some people have often refused to vote at all. 

In places where there are few choices, term limits allow new candidates to come forward when an incumbent's time expires. Term limits don't always guarantee turnouts, but they can stimulate interest. It depends on the mood of voters and the strength of candidates. However, term limits offer an opportunity for fresh candidacy when the opportunity isn't afforded by the endless term of a popular or neutral incumbent. In countries like the US, term limits have proven to stimulate voter turnout. During more recent presidential elections, turnouts have often been lower when an incumbent president (or his VP) has sought another term, minus the times during a depression or when an incumbent was loathed or hated by the electorate. 

In 1992, when Bill Clinton rose up as a Democratic star and defeated incumbent Bush, turnout was 55%. Rare cases like this show how popular candidates can unseat an incumbent and stimulate turnout. In 1996, however, due to Clinton's popularity, turnout sank to 49%. In the controversial 2000 election, turnout didn't do much better, but we have to keep in mind that Al Gore was Clinton's Vice President. Gore's candidacy was largely viewed as a re-run of Clinton's policies.  

Analysts attribute 2008's increase in voter turnout to Barack Obama's popularity. Despite being considered a lackluster candidate, John McCain's support was still higher than George Bush's support as an incumbent in 1992 and Bill Clinton's as an incumbent in 1996. Support for Barack Obama as an incumbent declined from 69 million in 2008 to under 66 million in 2012. In some cases the incumbents (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton) do better than their first election, but their contenders usually do worse than their own party's most recent incumbent. This is due to a discouraging environment that manifests when an incumbent is viewed as the "inevitable winner".

There is an idea that if an incumbent is popular the electorate should be able to grant him or her another term. In the United States and several South American countries, term limits are imposed to prevent a long term conglomeration of power. Above all, term limits deter and prevent monopolies on power. Often, potentially good leaders are also discouraged from running against incumbents, even if they could be better leaders. Without term limits, democracies can lose out on better leadership just due to an incumbent's popularity. 

Public office was never meant to be a career for anyone. A democracy was never meant to be a popularity contest, but rather a national decision on leadership. There is nothing wrong with popularity, but in a democracy leadership should be the prevailing purpose. If a democracy is secure and confident, there should be no reason to fear new leadership. 

Not all term limits are definitive ends to political careers. In some countries, like Russia, there is only a limit on consecutive terms, allowing candidates to seek re-election again in the future. 

Imposing consecutive term limits is often more reasonable than entirely barring leaders from ever running for public office again. Limiting a term to eight or ten consecutive years and then allowing a candidate to run again, after being absent one term, is a good way to truly test a candidate's worthiness. If the candidate is re-elected after being absent, he must surely be fit to lead his constituents. If a candidate loses in favour of the new incumbent, his leadership was never as favourable as originally thought when compared to new leadership. 

Most constitutional republics and parliamentary democracies were never designed to accommodate long-term careers in leadership. Most democracies were designed under principles of public service. Long periods of apathy and power can corrupt the original tenets of public service. Public service is meant to be a term of self sacrifice offered by the candidates and accepted by the people. Public service was never meant to be a life-time career that offers higher salaries than what most voters earn. 

A worthy candidate could be re-elected repeatedly, but by imposing limits on consecutive terms, that worthiness can be tested fairly by comparing it to an alternative. A potential leader can only be tested by leading, not by campaigning. Such term limits would improve democracy by continuously refreshing the field and giving voters more choices. A truly healthy democracy should not fear term limits.