Leaders Who Overstay
Most constitutions in the comity of nations do not put any restriction on the number of terms an individual can hold as an executive head of state. In fact, constitutional experts, too, do not generally advocate against unlimited number of terms. Parliamentary—more specifically, Westminster—forms of government almost always automatically allow a prime minister to keep on holding onto the seat of power as long as the regular motion of electoral exercise does not get rudely interrupted.
The United States constitution puts a two-term ceiling on a president. Initially, there was not such restriction but only a precedent set by the first chief executive George Washington, which went honoured. At least no one was elected for more than twice until Franklin Roosevelt broke the unwritten order when he contested and won four consecutive times, starting from 1932. Some critics choose to credit the unprecedented series of presidential innings to the World War II years that commenced in 1938.
Much of the problems in democratic practices in developing countries can be attributed to absence of mandatory retirement from high office in deference to a fixed number of terms. The two-term approach seems to be ideal. Two full terms or a maximum of total of nine years in office in case of shorter stints should be appropriate.
For that matter, there should be a ceiling on the number of years any elected representative can hold. This should cleanse some of the anomalies as well as ugly manipulation and machination that go into obtaining party tickets and getting reelected. Some countries in South Asia have regulations preventing more than two consecutive terms for even NGO heads, yet they are the ones that refrain from a ceiling on the executive head of the state.
Abdul Maumoon Gayoom probably holds a South Asian record for getting elected executive —and with record margins—for almost three decades until the new century forced him to introduce political reforms and exited him from office. Bangladesh has since 1991 seen only two persons—Awami League’s Hasina Wajed and Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s Khaleda Zia—as prime minister.
Needless to over-emphasise, opposition charges of rigged elections make predictably regular features in many a developing country. In Nepal, for instance, charges of fraudulent practices have accompanied every general election after the ban on political parties was lifted in spring 1990. Bangladesh has recorded long spells of boycotts of parliament by the main opposition of the day—whether it is the BNP or the League—accusing the ruling side of massive ballot-stuffing.
The comfort and privilege a seat of power provides a leader is more often than not too irresistible for refraining from less than fair means, as indicated by the less than flattering status accorded the polities in developing countries by well-funded agencies originating in democracies given a distinctly better status.
Virtually everywhere there is no ceiling on the number of terms for an elected representative other than the head of government or state. But this should not be an excuse for not giving due thoughts to it in real earnest. Many elected representatives in South Asia and elsewhere in the developing world face serious charges in the court of law and that criminalisation of politics is a major issue confronting these “democracies”. Determined initiatives in checking the trend effectively would be in order.
Leaders of major parties are bent on ensuring by any means that they and their factions get elected, and hence the consequence of blatant flouting of regulations pertaining to battle of the ballot. The ceiling put on election expenses thus becomes a farce. Incumbent chiefs consider the stakes too high and tempting, and hence the means fair and foul employed for their intended outcomes.
One of the main causes of the so-called “Spring” revolution seven years ago that hit the Arab world in North Africa and West Asia was attributed to the concerned rulers’ overstay in office. First, they did not perform well enough to address the voters’ longstanding needs and aspirations. Second, they were corrupt and dependant on cronies misusing their proximity to the ruler. Third, they proved to be incompetent and intolerant. Yet they were all “elected” leaders amidst opposition’s persistent claims of fraudulent practices unleashed by the ruling clique.
Many leaders began with remarkable track records as highly promising leaders in the opposition benches of parliament. Others carry commendable records in consistent campaigns for political reforms or legitimately popular movements for regime change. Once in power, however, quite a few of these very leaders begin changing their tone and tenor, resorting to authoritarian practices, aggravated by corruption that enriches a few at the expense of a vast majority of ill-fed and underemployed.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, at 93, is the oldest executive head of state, in power since 1987. He has finally given enough hints that he will not seek reelection next year, but not without ruling out the endorsement of his wife Grace as his successor in the ruling faction-ridden ZANU-PF.
Unquestionably, Mugabe played a key role against the racist Ian Smith regime in what was until 1980 known as Rhodesia. But then he has appropriated his past contributions in a cavalier manner to remain in office for three full decades misusing office for the benefit of his family and cronies.
Neighbouring South Africa, too, was under apartheid that ended after nearly three decades of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment. The 1990s saw the success in ending apartheid in South Africa, paving way for Nelson Mandela to be elected president with a massive popular mandate. He stepped down after two terms, though he could easily have extended to more terms. He ruled with compassion, democratic process and judicious decisions to the extent that he remained popular throughout and serves as an example for the rest of the post World War II-global context.
Records chronicle numerous instances of leaders and parties having at a specific period time contributed richly to causes widely appreciated, only to show an unflattering side of their face when in power or rejected by voters.
Absence of ceilings on terms in office tempts politicians to resort to dubious means for remaining in power, encircled by influence-peddlers, rowdies, profiteers and cronies who misuse their proximity to the person in power. Their persistence in unprincipled pursuit of power not only erodes personal credibility but causes prolonged setbacks to the national cause of due democratic process matched by pro-people measures.