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”)