When Term Limits Aren't A Good Idea

Critics of former president Bush's democracy-promotion agenda say he confused liberal ends (good government) with liberal means (elections). After all, leaders can use elections to perpetuate bad governments. In mature democracies, the answer has been to limit executive terms. But recent, controversial moves to dodge term limits are being taken by leaders in New York City and Colombia, which are widely seen as popular and successful models of good government.

THE IDEA: term limits are inadequate tools because they would toss out the Roosevelts with the Hoovers and constrain the democratic desire to restore a popular incumbent to office. Also, the prospect of reelection makes presidents responsive to voter demands. Waiving the rules from time to time—as Colombia may do for President Álvaro Uribe and New York did for Mayor Michael Bloomberg—strengthens democratic institutions.

THE EVIDENCE: take Uribe in Colombia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, both popular presidents. Uribe wrangled a constitutional amendment from Congress in 2006 allowing him to serve a second term; Congress has now authorized a referendum on whether he can run for a third. Chávez reset his term clock by enacting an entirely new Constitution in 2000, and he just won a plebiscite (on his second try) freeing him to run again. But there is a big difference, experts say, between negotiating an extension with the legislature (which means recognizing checks on presidential power) and harnessing popular passion. The latter acknowledges no other institutional actors; indeed, Chávez has used the courts to attack political opponents. Plebiscites weaken courts and legislatures "at the moment they are most needed," writes Dartmouth democracy scholar John Carey in the forthcoming issue of Americas Quarterly. Latin America populism has been here before: it was the route Peru's Alberto Fujimori and Ecuador's Rafael Correa used to stack their governments "with reliable supporters."

THE CONCLUSION: most of the world's stable governments have term limits on the books, but suspending them doesn't end democracy. It matters who dodges them, how and why.