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Term Limits

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Burundi and Term Limits

Part of the army rebelled in Burundi last week, not to overthrow the constitution but to save it. The revolt failed after two days of shooting in the capital, Bujumbura, and the generals who led it surrendered. “I hope they won’t kill us,”said the coup leader, Major-General Godefroid Niyombare. But like much else in Burundi, that remains up in the air.

Burundi, a small, densely populated country (10 million people) in the centre of Africa, has had a relatively good ten years. After a 12-year civil war that killed 300,000 people, a deal was struck at Arusha in 2005 that made the leader of the Hutu rebel group, Pierre Nkurunziza, the president, but divided the army equally between Hutus and Tutsis

It was a messy compromise, since Hutus are 80 percent of the population and Tutsis only 15 percent. However, it avoided the much worse carnage in neighbouring Rwanda, a country with the same ethnic mix where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in three months in 1994, so it was worth it.

Nkurunziza was appointed president of Burundi for five years (there was no time for an election at the end of a civil war), but he ran successfully for a second term in the 2010 election. The trouble started when he announced early this year that he intended to run for a third term as president in the election due this June. The new (2005) constitution says that presidents may only serve for two terms.

The two-term limit became standard in the new democracies that spread across Africa in the 1990s, and by ten years ago 34 African countries had put it into their constitutions. It is an attempt to end the “Big Man” phenomenon in African politics and make peaceful political change possible, but it does not always work.

In the last quarter-century, 18 African presidents have reached the two-term limit. Only eight of them stepped down without first trying to amend the constitution and abolish or change the term limit. As President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin remarked ruefully: “If you don’t leave power, power will leave you.” But ten other presidents did try to amend the constitution in order to stay past two terms, and seven of them succeeded.

Moreover, all the presidents who managed to change the constitution also won the subsequent election, most notably Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who famously said in 1986 that “No African president should be in power for more than ten years.” Museveni has now been in power for 29 years, and is preparing for the next election.

So the glass is at best half-full, although long-serving President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was chased from power by popular protests last year when he tried to amend the constitution to give himself another term. But here comes Pierre Nkurunziza, who cannot bring himself to stop being president after only two terms.

Burundi is exactly the wrong place to do this sort of thing. The country’s relative peace and modest prosperity depend on everybody being confident that the inter-ethnic killing is really over. That in turn depends on everybody observing the terms of the power-sharing deal between Hutus and Tutsis worked out at Arusha ten years ago.

Nkurunziza was already showing signs of dissatisfaction with the deal. Last year, he tried and failed to change the part of the constitution that guarantees positions for the minority Tutsi group in all government institutions. His party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has recently been given weapons, and its resemblance to the Interahamwe militia that did much of the killing in Rwanda makes many people uneasy.

The first step in his plan for holding onto power was to get the Constitutional Court to decide that he had not really served two terms, because for the first term he was appointed by parliament, not elected by the people. The Constitutional Court agreed – although one of its judges then fled the country and said that they had all been bullied and threatened into giving that judgement.

Last month the chair of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, questioned the decision by the Burundi court, saying the Arusha peace accord clearly stated a president should not seek a third term. More recently the African Union called for the postponement of the Burundi election, currently scheduled for June.

And of course the protesters have been out in the streets of Bujumbura every day, although at least 20 have been killed already. Even after the failed coup (which they deny any connection with) some of them are still going out to protest. But Burundi is clearly drifting back towards a civil war, if not an actual genocide. More than 50,000 people fled the country just last week in fear of what is to come.

The time to put pressure on Nkurunziza to back off and obey the law is now; later may be too late. It should come above all from African countries and institutions, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if the major providers of aid to Burundi also made their views known loudly and clearly.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 13. (“Moreover…election”; and “And of course…come”)

Term Limits

8 October 2007

Term Limits

By Gwynne Dyer

If you have a high enough opinion of yourself to want to be president in the first place, you probably think that term limits are a stupid nuisance. If two terms of Bill Clinton (or Vladimir Putin, or Benazir Bhutto) are a good thing for the country, then surely three or four terms would be even better. Surely there must be some way around it….

Russian President Vladimir Putin has found a way. For years he’s been saying that he’ll serve his two terms (eight years) and then leave office. Russia must become a country of laws, and it’s out of the question to change the constitution just because two-thirds of the Russian population want him back for a third term (and they do). He’ll still be around if the new president should need some advice, but no individual is indispensable.

And then, surprise! Last week Putin suddenly announced that he would head the list of his party, United Russia (motto: “Putin’s plan is Russia’s victory”), in the December parliamentary election. United Russia is certain to win the election — and Putin told the party’s congress that he would be willing take the job of prime minister once he retires as president in March.

“Heading the government is a realistic idea,” Putin said, adding that he would be happy to work under the new president who must be elected next spring provided that he is a “decent, competent and effective person.” That should not be hard to ensure, since it is Putin who will nominate the new president — and we all know that he wouldn’t really be working UNDER the new president.

Putin is by far the most powerful and popular politician in Russia. If he becomes the prime minister, then the executive power will slide from the president’s office to his. Then, in the following election in 2012 (when he’ll still be only 60), he can run for the presidency again quite

legally, and move the centre of power back to the president’s office. And at no point will the democratic constitution of the country have been tampered with. Clever.

Even shadier games are underway in Pakistan, a country whose democratic facade is a good deal more tattered than Russia’s. The general who made himself president of Pakistan eight years ago, Pervez Musharraf, was facing mounting popular discontent, but he has just made an alliance with the twice-deposed former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who will return from nine years of exile on 18 October.

Musharraf had previously changed the constitution to ban anybody from serving more than twice as prime minister, precisely in order to prevent Benazir Bhutto and her long-time rival Nawaz Sharif (also twice removed from the prime ministership by army pressure) from ever returning to power. But now that change will be undone, and Benazir Bhutto, daughter of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (executed by a previous military regime) will return triumphantly to power. Or at least a share of power.

This is shabby stuff, and the dynastic element is particularly hard to take. Why, with almost 170 million Pakistanis to choose from, is this woman the great hope of Pakistani democracy? Because she is an enormously rich feudal landowner and the daughter of a martyred former prime minister, and because the dynastic principle is big in the democracies of the Indian sub-continent. Three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi clan have loomed as large in Indian politics as the Bhuttos in Pakistan, or the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka, or the two rival families that have polarised Bangladeshi politics for most of the past thirty years.

You wouldn’t find that sort of thing happening in the older democracies — except, of course, in the United States. There are 300 million Americans, but if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency next year and gets two full terms, only two families (father and son, and husband and wife) will have monopolised the presidency for 28 consecutive years.

Bill Clinton would have wiped the floor with George W. Bush in the 2000 election if he had been allowed to run, but strict term limits got in the way of that. Happily for him, Clinton does have a wife who can run for the presidency.

It has never been clear when Hillary Clinton developed her ambition to become president, or how much it was actually her own idea. Although she was clearly interested in policy issues, there was no sign that she had such an ambition during Bill Clinton’s first term in 1992-96. By the end of his second term it was quite obvious, however, and her path through the Senate to the 2008 presidential nomination had already been thought through.

It clearly suited them both: Hillary gets to be out front at last, but Bill gets back in the limelight too. The man who was once billed as America’s “first black president” — because he was allegedly so closely attuned to black American culture — may also finish up, at least vicariously, as America’s first female president.

In fact, part of the Clintons’ appeal to the Democratic voting base, which has now given Hillary an almost unbeatable lead for the Democratic presidential nomination, is precisely the two-for-one package that is on offer. But it still feels sort of, well, subcontinental.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“Heading…president”;and “It has never…through”)