Tag Archives: presidential term limits

Guinea headed towards controversial constitutional change

It appears to be official. For months rumors have been swirling that President Alpha Condé was planning a constitutional referendum to adopt a new constitution and by the same token remove presidential term limits. Condé, who is 81 years old, is currently serving his second five-year term which will end next year. According to Guinea’s 2010 constitution, “no one may exercise more than two presidential mandates, consecutive or not.” The constitution also provides that “the number and the duration of the mandates of the President of the Republic may not be made the object of a revision.” So, logically, the only means of amending the presidential term limits is through the adoption of a brand new constitution.

On June 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guinea reportedly issued a note to the country’s diplomatic representations across the world, confirming the government’s intention of submitting a new constitution to a referendum, and laying out the reasons for this initiative. The official reasons for the adoption of a new constitution include among others:

  • That the 2010 constitution was elaborated and adopted by a transitional council and not submitted to a popular vote;
  • That the roles and responsibilities between the president and prime minister are not clearly defined in the existing fundamental text;
  • The cumulatively short duration of legislative sessions during the year;
  • The need to reformulate the articles governing the constitutional court; and
  • The absence of a more elaborate bill of rights, including environmental, defense and women’s and children’s rights.

Interestingly, the note does not make reference to changing presidential term limits. However, revising term limits for the incumbent president is among the changes supported by Conde’s ruling RPG which include the following:

  • Replacing the prime minister with a vice-president;
  • Replacing the existing economic and social council with a senate;
  • Increasing the number of legislators and allowing for independent candidates;
  • Facilitating greater gender equity in elected positions;
  • Reducing the minimum age requirement for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 years of age; and
  • Allowing the incumbent president to run again.

Guinea’s opposition parties are, not surprisingly, less than thrilled with plans to change the constitution and allow President Condé to run for a third term. A coalition of opposition parties, civil society groups and trade unions have come together to form the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), in an effort designed to counter initiatives to change the constitution.

In the context of West Africa where countries have been gradually consolidating mechanisms for the peaceful transfer of executive power, notably through presidential term limits, Guinea would be rowing against the tide. Currently, President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo is the only president serving more that two terms in the subregion. Moreover, Togo just recently reintroduced presidential term limits – though they will not apply retroactively to the sitting president. In The Gambia, ongoing debates on constitutional reform are centered on entrenching, not eliminating presidential term limits. Even in Mauritania, not otherwise known for a stellar democratic record, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down at the end of his second presidential term, following presidential elections held on June 22.

Guinea is headed towards turbulent times, with presidential elections on the horizon for October 2020. Given the country’s history of violent demonstrations, significant loss of life is to be feared should the referendum to change the constitution proceed. Even if term limits are not revised, the adoption of a new constitution can reset the term limit counter, as we saw President Abdoulaye Wade argue in Senegal when he ran for a third term in 2012. Tensions in Guinea over the constitutional change debate have already boiled over with deadly consequences. At least one person was killed in clashes between police and demonstrators against a third term in the south-eastern city of N’Zerekoré earlier this month. As the announcement of the constitutional referendum becomes official, more violence is likely to follow.

Senegal – Back to presidentialism?

Newly reelected President Macky Sall has given his prime minister, Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, the unenviable task of eliminating his own position. This will entail changing Senegal’s constitution — once again — and reintroduce a presidential system.

Despite Senegal’s history of relative political stability, the country’s constitutional history has been far from stable. Senegal is at its fourth constitution, since 1959, and has changed government system several times already. In between constitutions, there have been numerous constitutional amendments, most of which have been passed by a legislative vote without resorting to a referendum.

In August 1960, Senegal adopted its second constitution — and its first as an independent, separate republic — after abandoning the short-lived Mali Federation created by the first 1959 constitution. The 1960 constitution was modeled on the 1958 French example with a dual executive: with an indirectly elected president as head of state and a prime minister (“cabinet president”) appointed by the president, but accountable to the National Assembly. Léopold Sédar Senghor was elected Senegal’s first president and his close political ally Mamadou Moustapha Dia became the country’s first prime minister.

This two-headed executive system did not survive a rapidly mounting power struggle between Senghor and Dia that culminated in a constitutional crisis in 1962. Legislators were about to take a no confidence vote in Dia, when the prime minister ordered the army to hinder access to the National Assembly building. Senghor accused Dia of a constitutional coup attempt and had him arrested. The military remained loyal to the president and Dia spent the next 12 years in jail. Senghor promptly took steps to avoid a similar situation in the future and initiated a new, presidential constitution that was approved by referendum in March 1963 (the country’s third constitution in four years). Senghor was reelected in December of that year by popular vote for a four-year presidential term, without term limits. In 1967, in the first of what was to be a be a total of 20 revisions to the 1963 constitution, the presidential term was increased to five years.

Senegal returned to a dual executive system in 1970 with the reintroduction of the prime minister position, in an effort to defuse tensions in a context of social unrest with student demonstration and labor strikes. Senghor initiated a referendum on a constitutional change that this time resulted in a fully fledged semi-presidential government system, providing for a directly elected president and a prime minister accountable to parliament (modeled on the 1962 revised French constitution). This revision also introduced a two-term presidential term limit. This limit was, however, removed again in the fifth constitutional revision of April 1976.

Before finishing his fourth elected term, Senghor resigned on December 31, 1980. Prime Minister Abdou Diouf became president and served out the rest of the term. Shortly after being elected president on his own account in 1983, Diouf initiated a constitutional change to return Senegal to presidentialism. The argumentation presented for the revision included the need for greater efficiency and effectiveness of government action and the expressed desire for a more direct contact between the president and the population. This time, presidentialism survived for eight years, till 1991. With the return to semi-presidentialism in 1991, as the third wave of democratization swept across Africa, Senegal also reintroduced presidential term limits. The term limits were, however, removed again in 1998, in the 19th revision to the 1963 constitution.

When Abdoulaye Wade won the presidency in 2000, marking the first time that executive power transitioned from one party to another in Senegal’s history, the new president initiated the elaboration of a new constitution. The country thus got its fourth and current constitution adopted by referendum in 2001. Senegal retained a semi-presidential system of government, and reintroduced presidential term limits. This new constitution has not fared much better than the old one, however, in terms of amendments. By 2010, the constitutional text had already been revised 15 times, according to Robert Elgie.

Senegal – Changes in government system and presidential term limits

1960Dual executive system, no presidential term limits
1963Presidentialism
1970Semi-presidentialism, term limits introduced [removed again in 1976]
1983Presidentialism
1991Semi-presidentialism, term limits reintroduced [removed again in 1998, reintroduced in 2001]
2019??Presidentialism??

President Macky Sall, shortly after being elected in 2012, initiated a constitutional revision to remove the senate from Senegal’s democratic architecture, but has overall had a less piecemeal approach to constitutional reform. In 2016, the government introduced a series of amendments that touched 20 articles of the constitution and were passed by referendum. Chief among these was the reduction of the length of presidential terms to five years, from the seven years it had been increased to under Wade. Sall’s second term, after his reelection in February of this year, will thus be reduced to five years.  

Sall is now following in the footsteps of Diouf, moving to return Senegal to presidentialism. Perhaps it is his shortened presidential term that provides Sall with a sense of urgency and the desire to streamline decision-making processes. His arguments for returning to presidentialism echo those of Diouf, saying that eliminating the prime minister position will help “reduce administrative bottlenecks” and “bring the administration closer to the people.” His critics allege it is a power grab. It is striking that Sall did not mention his plans to change government system during his campaign for reelection. The first indication of his intentions came in an announcement on April 6, by Mahammed Dionne whom he had just reappointed prime minister. The government thereafter moved quickly and on April 17 adopted a constitutional amendment removing the prime minister position.

The proposed constitutional amendment was on April 24 sent to the National Assembly that will now review and debate the proposed changes. A vote is set for May 4th. It will require a three fifth majority to pass the amendment by legislative vote, a likely outcome in a legislature where the presidential coalition controls a 75 percent majority (125 out of 165 seats). Should the legislative vote pass with less than 60 percent, a referendum is required. The text of the constitutional amendment has not yet been made public, but an alleged copy is circulating online. Reportedly, besides transferring responsibilities as head of government to the president, the revised text also foresees a clearer separation of powers between the legislature and the executive: on the one hand the legislature can no longer topple the cabinet through a no confidence vote, on the other hand, the president cannot dissolve the legislature as is currently the case.

There is no indication that the proposed constitutional amendment will touch on presidential term limits. Hopefully Sall will not follow in the steps of another previous president – Wade – who stood for a third term despite term limit provisions. Wade argued in 2012 that he should be allowed to run again because presidential term limits had been reintroduced in 2001, after he was elected, and could not be considered retroactively. Elsewhere on the continent, Côte  d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara has argued that the adoption of a new constitution in 2016 reset the term limit counter and that he could therefore run again in 2020, if he wanted to. In Senegal, the difference is that if the amendment passes, the country will have a new government system, but not a new constitution. It remains to be seen whether this is a sure bulwark in a country and region where term limits have proven fickle in the past. In neighboring Guinea, President Alpha Conde and his supporters seem increasingly intent on initiating a constitutional referendum that would lift term limits before Conde’s second and last term comes to an end next year. Despite significant democratic progress in West Africa over the past decade, the notion of presidential term limits does not yet appear to be firmly entrenched.

Incumbency and elections: the 2019 polls in Botswana and South Africa

On Saturday 31 March, Botswana’s Ian Khama stepped down as the country’s president and a day later Mokgweetsi Masisi was sworn in. In a region which has seen two of the continent’s longest running presidencies – Robert Mugabe (37 years) and José Eduardo dos Santos (38 years) – Khama’s decision to respect the country’s term limits and bow out after 10 years was widely applauded. Botswana’s ruling party faces an election in just 18 months, so why would the president step down before the election?

Incumbents win elections in Africa. When a sitting president faces an opposition challenger, the opposition wins just 12% of the time.[1] But when an opposition challenger competes in an open seat election (after the president has stepped down), the opposition’s success rate increases nearly fourfold to 45%.

Incumbents win more often due to the ‘incumbency effect’ – presidents can bend state institutions in their favour, frequently securing positive coverage in the public media, they use patronage and positions to buy loyalty, and they are able to introduce popular (or populist) policies to consolidate the ruling party’s vote base. In many cases, the president is also able to use state resources to campaign in the elections, severely skewing the playing field in their favour.

Khama stepping down 18 months ahead of the polls allows Masisi to increase his chances of being elected in 2019, by accruing the benefits of incumbency and thus perpetuating the survival of the BDP.

Protecting the Party in Botswana

Botswana’s presidential terms are disconnected from the five-year electoral cycle – a trend that began after Ketumile Masire introduced presidential term limits and stepped down for his successor after 18 years as head of state in 1998. Rather than a marker of democratic governance, the uncoupling of the electoral timeline and presidential term limit is a mechanism for ensuring the continued electoral success of the ruling Botswana Democratic party – in power since 1966.

History recalls Masire in a positive light, but his decoupling of the presidential and parliamentary terms was intended for the very purpose that it now serves. In 1997 when he changed the constitution, it was in response to the growing unpopularity of his ‘old guard’ due to serious corruption scandals; and it was done to stave off the threat of an electoral loss in 1999.[2]

Prior to Khama’s 2018 resignation, politics in Botswana appeared eerily reminiscent of the last days of Masire’s rule in the 1990s.[3] Khama’s administration had been accused of growing authoritarian tendencies, corruption and populism at home – though his foreign policy stances were widely celebrated abroad.

After 52 years in power, many Botswanans have begun to tire of the BDP. The party narrowly avoided defeat in the last elections, when they faced a more united opposition. In the 2014 elections Khama’s BDP failed to win an outright majority, garnering just 46.5% of the vote, while opposition parties shared 53.5%. The next 18 months will give Masisi time to consolidate his position within the BDP and take the lead on popular policies to address the corruption, inequality and unemployment that are seen to have increased markedly under Khama.

The South African Comparison

While South Africa’s presidential term depends entirely on parliamentary electoral cycles, the predominance of the ANC – in power since 1994 – allows the party to similarly short-circuit the party’s electoral accountability. The ANC’s constitution provides for just two presidential terms as party leader – a convention that has been respected until now, notwithstanding Thabo Mbeki’s attempt to change it and Jacob Zuma’s intention to install a proxy.

However, the party’s leadership renewal calendar installs a new party leader a little less than 18 months before the country goes to the ballot box. With the removal of Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma, the party has begun a similar (if less formalised) trend to Botswana, by delinking the presidential term from the electoral cycle.

Jacob Zuma – and to a lesser extent, Mbeki – was removed to allow the ANC to revive their waning electoral legitimacy and clean up the party’s image in the wake of damaging scandals.[4] After the party’s bruising loss of major municipalities in the 2016 local government elections and the decline of the ANC’s national tally to just 54%, most pundits predicted that the Zuma-effect would pull the ANC under the 50% threshold in 2019.

The coalitions formed by the opposition to govern in Nelson Mandela Bay, Pretoria and Johannesburg have been seen to presage the need for a national coalition after 2019.[5] The opposition Democratic Alliance was certainly hopeful.[6]

Instead, the removal of Zuma and installation of Cyril Ramaphosa as president led to a wave of positive sentiment – dubbed ‘Ramaphoria’ – which has bolstered the currency, helped stave off a downgrade to ‘junk status’ by Moody’s and left the middle class sleeping a little easier. The ANC hopes to capitalise on their renewed breathing space, and was reportedly considered bringing the 2019 elections forward to outflank the opposition.[7]

Introducing a new president – who is presented as a ‘new broom’ – ahead of an election can help revive the waning fortunes of a dominant party. This (to some degree) has helped reinvigorate the image of Tanzania’s ruling CCM which has been in power since 1962.  Both the ANC and the BDP will be hoping that their pre-emptive moves to renew public confidence will pay off at the ballot box next year. By never running an open-seat election, these parties are likely to maintain their longevity for as long as the public is willing to give the new leader the benefit of the doubt.

[1] Nic Cheeseman, “African Elections as Vehicles for Change,” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 4 (2010): 139–153.

[2] Kenneth Good and Ian Taylor, “Unpacking the ‘Model’: Presidential Succession in Botswana,” in Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in African Politics, ed. Roger Southall and Henning Melber (Cape Town: Uppsala: Chicago: HSRC Press; Nordiska Afrikainstitutet; Independent Publishers Group, 2006).

[3] Joel Konopo, “Bad Khama,” August 10, 2017, https://www.businesslive.co.za/fm/features/africa/2017-08-10-ian-khamas-growing-intolerance/; Monageng Mogalakwe and Francis Nyamnjoh, “Botswana at 50: Democratic Deficit, Elite Corruption and Poverty in the Midst of Plenty,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 35, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/02589001.2017.1286636.

[4] For example, Mahlatse Mahlase and Lizeka Tandwa, “It’s Not a Matter of If, but When Zuma Goes – NEC Sources,” The M&G Online, January 9, 2018, https://mg.co.za/article/2018-01-09-its-not-a-matter-of-if-but-when-zuma-goes-nec-sources/; Mogomotse Magome, “Graft Charges Make Zuma an Electoral Liability,” IOL, May 2, 2016, https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/graft-charges-make-zuma-an-electoral-liability-2016402.

[5] Marianne Merten, “Analysis: Coalitions No Easy Route Come 2019, as Current Co-Operation Pacts Wobble | Daily Maverick,” The Daily Maverick, October 8, 2017, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-10-08-analysis-coalitions-no-easy-route-come-2019-as-current-co-operation-pacts-wobble/.

[6] “The ANC May Not Be the Government in 2019, Coalitions Are the Future for SA,” Democratic Alliance (blog), December 6, 2017, https://www.da.org.za/2017/12/anc-may-not-government-2019-coalitions-future-sa/.

[7] Sam Mkokeli, “ANC to Discuss Bringing Elections Forward to Capitalise on ‘Ramaphoria,’” Sunday Times, March 25, 2018, https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/business/2018-03-25-anc-to-discuss-bringing-elections-forward-to-capitalise-on-ramaphoria/.

Ecuador – Term Limits Re-introduced, but Questions Remain over Moreno Presidency

In Ecuador President Lenin Moreno has won a resounding victory against his predecessor, Rafael Correa, in a wide-ranging plebiscite. Nevertheless, questions remain over the nature and direction of the new government. More specifically, while the approval of a proposal to re-introduce presidential term limits has been hailed in some circles as bucking the region’s “authoritarian trend,” the jury remains out on Ecuador’s future democratic path.

What can be said with certainty at this stage is that for the first time in over a decade, former president Rafael Correa has come out on the losing side in a public vote. As noted previously in this blog, opposition to the plebiscite consisted almost exclusively of Correa and his supporters, all of whom until very recently were members of the governing party, Alianza PAIS. Ranged against them were all of the major political and social actors in the country united – it appears – by a common desire to achieve the ‘de-Correa-ification’ of Ecuadorian politics.

Making predictions about Ecuadorian politics is extremely risky, given the partisan nature of opinion polling. However, as one commentator noted, “for once” the opinion polls correctly predicted the outcome of the plebiscite. The ‘Yes’ vote achieved an overall majority of almost 2:1 across the seven questions[i] put to the electorate, by margins ranging between 26 and 47 per cent, figures that also line up with Moreno’s overall approval ratings.

In spite of the size of the winning margin for the government – only on three previous occasions in the past forty years has a plebiscite been carried by a wider margin[ii] – it could not be said to have succeeded entirely in vanquishing Correa. The former president was quick to hail what he described as a “great triumph” for his newly formed Movement of the Citizens’ Revolution, claiming that “no other single movement obtained 36% of the vote”.

While this claim smacks somewhat of desperation – Ospina estimates the true size of Correa’s core constituency at closer to 22%[iii] – it contains enough truth to trouble Moreno. Taking into account that the president won around 39% of the votes in the first round of voting in last year’s presidential election – and that all opposition parties campaigned for a ‘Yes’ – one analyst estimates that Moreno succeeded in winning over a mere 8-11% of government supporters.

These figures raise the question of how Moreno will govern from this point onward, and in particular how he will consolidate his hold on power. In this context, the results of the plebiscite are extremely interesting.

Most international attention has focussed on the approval of Question 2, which effectively restores presidential term limits. This move is significant in terms of halting a drift toward indefinite re-election, particularly in light of recent events in Bolivia. It must be remembered, however, that the result returns Ecuador to the position set out in its 2008 Constitution, which allows for one instance of re-election to the same post. In effect the plebiscite has therefore repealed the amendment pushed through by Correa in 2015 via the National Assembly (not a referendum), a process which met with vigorous opposition in the streets.

As a result, the plebiscite has undone one of the most unpopular measures of the Correa government, such that many believe it was significant in persuading Correa not to run for election in 2017. The reform does not prevent Moreno from running for re-election as president, and even presents the possibility – however theoretical – of Correa being elected to a different post.

In fact, for many commentators the outcome of Question 3 of the plebiscite may prove to be more significant in terms of Ecuadorian democracy. That question relates to the Committee for Citizen Participation and Popular Control (CPCCS). This institution was designed to act as a form or popular or citizen check on government power, but in effect was used by Correa as one of the primary means to concentrate power.

As Ecuadorian sociologist Mario Unda notes, a list of the state functions over which the CPCCS had nominating power is illustrative, including the Attorney General, Ombudsman, Controller General, National Electoral Council and Judiciary Council. In the words of one commentator, under Correa the CPCCS became the “nucleus of state control”.

Little wonder then that many observers are waiting anxiously to see what Moreno does with this much-coveted institution. The proposal approved in the plebiscite is to re-structure the Committee, starting by replacing all of its Correa-appointed members. Moreno has pledged that in the future members will be elected by the public.

Nevertheless in the short term there will be a transition period in which Moreno will propose a shortlist of candidates to be approved by the legislature. In the view of Ospina, this gives Moreno “almost unlimited power” over the CPCCS[iv].

For a president with such a diminished core of support and relatively precarious hold on power, this process appears to present a “golden opportunity” to consolidate power. On the other hand, Moreno is coming under increasing pressure from other political players seeking to co-opt the CPCCS. What happens next will tell us a lot about Moreno and the true extent of change in Ecuador.

Notes

[i] The other questions related to: the removal of political rights for those guilty of corruption; the election of new members of the Committee for Citizen Participation and Popular Control; the repeal of the Capital Gains Tax Law; the extension of the ‘intangible zone’ in Yasuni National Park; restrictions on mining in protected areas; enhanced protections for children.

[ii] Pablo Ospina, 2018. Informe de Coyuntura: De la Consulta Popular as la edad de las presiones. CEP Informe de Coyuntura, Febrero. Available at: http://www.cepecuador.org/images/PDFs/coyuntura_ecuador_febrero_2018.pdf

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

When European presidents abused presidential term limits

The abuse of presidential term limits is rife. In Uganda deputies voted only last month to abolish the age limit for presidential candidates. This decision paved the way for President Museveni to stand for a sixth term, the two-term limit there having already been scrapped in 2005.

In Europe, here meaning the member-state countries of the EU plus Iceland and Switzerland, presidential term limits are not subject to abuse. However, Europe has not always been exempt from practices typically associated with the abuse of presidential term limits. Indeed, there have been examples of presidential terms limits being abolished, ‘grandfathering’ clauses being introduced, and term lengths being extended to suit particular presidents.

In five European countries, presidential term limits have been abolished at some point. In these cases, the process of abolition was often associated with the manipulation of presidential term lengths as well.

  • In France, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was directly elected as president in December 1848. With the constitution allowing only a four-year non-renewable term, he staged a coup in December 1852, soon becoming Emperor Napoleon III.
  • In Lithuania, the 1926 coup led by Antanas Smetona was followed by a new Constitution in 1928. In the new Constitution, presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished, leaving President Smetona constitutionally secure in power.
  • In Portugal, a presidency was established with the 1911 Constitution following the abolition of the monarchy. In 1933 Salazar’s so-called Estado Novo constitution extended the president’s term to seven years and abolished term limits. Salazar himself didn’t serve as president, but the abolition of presidential term limits was part of his strategy for securing power in the regime at that time.
  • In Austria, President Hainisch stepped down in 1928 because he was term limited. He was succeeded by Wilhelm Miklas. In 1933 Prime Minister Engelbert Dolfuß effectively ended democracy by shutting down parliament. In 1934 a new Constitution was passed in which presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished. President Miklas benefited from the change, though he was allowed to do so because he was such a docile figure that he posed no threat to the authoritarian regime.
  • Finally, in Czechoslovakia the 1948 Constitution included a term-limit clause. The 1948 Constitution was drafted before the Communists fully assumed power that year. In 1960 a new Constitution was passed, leaving in doubt the Communist nature of the regime, and term limits were abolished as part of the reform.

‘Grandfathering’ is where a particular individual is exempt from a general rule. In the case of presidential term limits, it means that the Constitution includes a term-limit procedure, but a particular individual is exempted from such limits and, in effect, serves as a president for life. There are two historic cases of ‘grandfathering’ in Europe, both in Czechoslovakia.

  • In the 1920 Czechoslovak Constitution, the text stipulated a seven-year term with a two-term limit. However, it also stated that these provisions did not apply to the first president. This was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. President Masaryk reminded in power until 1935 when he resigned on health grounds.
  • In the 1948 Czechoslovak Constitution, there was also a clause stating that the term-limit provisions did not apply to a particular person, this time to the second president of the Republic. This was Edvard Beneš. He had succeeded Masaryk, becoming the second President of the Republic, only to be forced from power after the Munich Agreement in 1938. He returned in 1945 and was president in May 1948 when the Constitution of that year was promulgated. However, Beneš opposed the Communist takeover and he resigned in June 1948, effectively making the ‘grandfather’ clause a dead letter.

In effect, then, the abuse of presidential term limits in the countries in the sample here ended in the early post-war period. This is partly because in the post-war period most European democracies have had figurehead presidents, leaving little incentive to abuse term-limit provisions. More importantly, the abuse of term limits is endogenous to the abuse of the rule of law more generally. In other words, the abuse of term limits is a symptom of a democracy in decline, rather than the cause. Given democracy in Europe has remained strong, term limits have been respected. We only have to look at a European country outside the sample here, Belarus, to see how term limits were abused when democracy itself was abolished.

It is worth noting, though, that in four European countries in the sample, there are currently no presidential term limits. They are Cyprus, Iceland, Italy, and Malta. In addition, two democracies previously operated for long periods without term limits – Finland from 1919-1990 and France from 1875-1940 and again from 1958-2008.

The absence of term limits has led to some ‘long’ presidencies, even when countries have been unequivocally democratic. In Finland, President Urho Kekkonen was in office from 1956-1982 and in Iceland four presidents have served for three or more terms, with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson holding the presidency from 1996-2016.

In Iceland, Italy, and Malta, there are figurehead presidents. So, there is little call for the introduction of presidential term limits. Cyprus, though, has a presidential system. No Cypriot president has been elected for more than two consecutive terms since Makarios III, even if a number of presidents have stood unsuccessfully for a third term. Even so, the introduction of term limits is regularly part of the political debate. Indeed, a bill to this effect is due to be debated in the legislature very soon.

Overall, in European democracies presidential term limits are, almost by definition, safe from abuse as long as the rule of law remains in place. However, in the past term limits have been abused and more recently some European democracies have witnessed ‘long’ presidencies in the absence of a presidential term-limit clause.

Togo – Trouble for long-tenured President Faure Gnassingbé

President Faure Gnassingbé is facing relentless calls for his departure. The sale of T-shirts with the slogan #Faure Must Go is booming.  Since August, massive waves of protesters in the streets have demanded a return to the 1992 constitution with its two-term limits. Faure is currently serving his third five-year term. He took over as president in 2005 at the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who came to power in April 1967 through a coup. This year thus marks the 50th anniversary of one family’s rule over Togo.

Togo has become an anomaly in West Africa – the only country where a president is serving more than two terms. Along with The Gambia, Togo voted against a proposal to limit the number of terms presidents can serve across the ECOWAS region, a proposal put forward at a regional summit in 2015. Since then, long-serving autocrat Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia lost reelection in 2016. The coalition that brought his successor Adama Barrow to power has presidential term limits as one of its declared constitutional reform priorities. This would leave Togo as the only country in West Africa without presidential term limits.

Protests against presidential overstay in office have been ongoing for months. At the forefront of the demonstrations taking place in major cities across the country has been the National Panafrican Party (PNP) of Tikpi Atchadam, an opposition party created in 2014. The PNP conducted an active grassroots mobilizing campaign that demonstrated its effectiveness when on August 19  the party organized demonstrations simultaneously in four out of five regions of the country, from north to south, calling for a return to the 1992 constitution and an end to the ruling family dynasty. Thousands of Togolese took to the streets in five cities, including Lomé, Sokodé (the country’s second largest city and Tikpi’s home) and Kara, a traditional bastion of support for the Gnassingbé family (Eyadéma was born nearby). The demonstrations were violently repressed and at least two people were killed in Sokodé. Togolese of the diaspora also demonstrated in New York, Berlin, Libreville and Accra.

This show of force and capacity of mobilization has reinvigorated the Togolese opposition. In contrast to most of the country’s longtime opposition leaders who hail from the southern part of the country, Tikpi is a northerner like Faure and his family. His rise as an influential opposition leader has shattered the traditional north-south divide that has characterized Togolese politics since the 1960s. Worried by his mobilizing power, the government has sought to cast Tikpi as a “radical Muslim.” The August demonstrations led to the creation of a 14-party opposition coalition and further marches in September that drew more than 100,000 Togolese into the streets across the country. Alleging threats on his life, Tikpi has been less visible in recent weeks, leaving the limelight to historical opposition leaders such as Jean-Pierre Fabre (ANC) and Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson (CPDA).

The government has responded to the protests with the adoption of a constitutional reform bill that would reintroduce two-term limits – the measure would, however, not be retroactive, meaning that Faure could run again in 2020 and 2025. The opposition boycotted the legislative vote on the bill in September and it failed to muster the required 4/5 majority vote to pass. The ruling party declared it would instead submit the constitutional changes to a referendum, which is yet to take place. As clashes continued in October and led to several hundred Togolese seeking refuge in Ghana, Togo’s neighbors have gotten involved in seeking a solution to the political crisis. At least 16 people have been killed since August, including two soldiers. President Nana Akufo-Addo has been designated by ECOWAS to act as mediator and his representative traveled to Lomé in November in an effort to calm the situation and create conditions for dialogue.  In the same vein, Tikpi, Fabre and Adjamago-Johnson met with African Union President Alpha Condé in Paris on November 21 to discuss modalities for political dialogue with the government.

Regional mediation efforts may be bearing fruit. Faure Gnassingbé has declared that talks could start in “a few weeks.” It remains to be seen whether common ground can be found. The opposition would have reasons to be wary. Faure’s father Eyadéma weathered the 1991 national conference and gradually voided the constraints on presidential power and tenure introduced in the 1992 constitution through a process of “putsch by installments” (Handy 2005, p.48). Similarly, the incumbent president has ably avoided discussion of institutional reforms – notably the return to presidential two-term limits – a discussion mandated by the Accord Politique Global (APG) of 2006. The APG was signed by the ruling and opposition parties following the 2005 post-election violence in which several hundred Togolese died.  The 2010 presidential election was again contested, though demonstrations did not turn as violent. In response, Faure included historical opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio in a power-sharing government, thereby weakening the opposition.

Given the less than stellar family track record in terms of respecting past agreements, the opposition may worry that any measure short of ending the family rule will again be rolled back. The military could come to play a crucial role, as it did in 2005 when it ensured the transition of power from father to son at the death of Eyadéma.  The majority of army officers are from northern Togo, notably from Faure’s home region of Kara. Faure has publicly renewed his confidence in the military and blamed the opposition for the October violence that caused two soldiers’ deaths. On its part, the opposition sent an explicit message to the Togolese security forces on November 18 during its latest round of marches with the reading of a statement declaring “you are our brothers.”

While discussions continue on conditions for initiating political dialogue, the opposition coalition is maintaining pressure and has called for demonstrations again on November 29-30 and December 2.

Bolivia – Ruling Party Still Presses for Change in Term Limits

The issue of term limits for President Evo Morales and his left-leaning governing party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), still remains on the table. The MAS party has submitted a claim to the Plurinational Constitutional Court that the current constitution, and the articles specific to term limits, are violating the political rights of the president by limiting the constitutional right of all Bolivians to “participate freely in the formation, exercise and control of political power“. In short, their argument contends that the constitutional provisions on term limits are, in fact, unconstitutional. They wish the Court to overturn the relevant articles and allow Evo Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019.

This is not a minor political battle. Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. On this basis, Morales’ opponents challenged his right to run in the last election in October 2014. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009 and as such, his opponents claimed he has already held two consecutive terms, and so was constitutionally barred from running again. The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office was not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect.

But this not stopped Morales seeking a fourth consecutive term. In February 2016, Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum, which would have allowed him to run again in 2019. Despite high levels of popularity throughout his terms, coupled with growth rates of nearly 7 per cent per annum, he was dogged by a corruption scandal involving a former relationship from 2005 with Gabriela Zapata and her relationship with a Chinese construction firm, CAMC. During the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling and corruption, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform. As a consequence, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate (with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent).

But Morales and the MAS, despite initially claiming that they would respect the results of the referendum have not left things at that. Morales publicly announced his intention to seek a fourth term after the referendum and just before Christmas, the MAS named Morales as its candidate for the 2019 elections.

What makes the current strategy of the MAS all the more interesting is the fact that elections for the juridical positions on the Plurinational Constitutional Court will be held this coming December. It is expected that candidates will be pressed by the media and the public, about their position on the proposal of the MAS. One thing is for sure: we have not heard the last about term limits in Bolivia.

Benin – Debating the benefits of a one-term presidency

With President Patrice Talon keen to keep his campaign pledge that he will not stand for reelection, debate is picking up in Benin over the benefits and drawbacks of a one-term presidency. Businessman and independent candidate Talon ran for president on a promise that he would serve only one term, and won in the second round with 65 percent of the votes. Talon, known as the “King of Cotton” for his fortune made in the cotton industry, repeated the promise at his swearing in ceremony on April 6, 2016. Though the 1990 constitution of Benin allows a president to serve a maximum of two five-year terms, Talon maintains he will only stay one term in the Palais de la Marina, the presidential palace in Cotonou.

President Talon is intent on ensuring that not only he, but also future presidents of Benin serve only one term in office, which according to him would reduce presidential “complacency.” Constitutional reform to improve the functioning of Benin’s political institutions and strengthen governance figured prominently in candidate Talon’s campaign platform. Once elected, he swiftly set up a constitutional review commission on May 6, 2016 which submitted its report on June 28. However, as Ulrike Rodgers writes, the commission deadlocked on whether to include one seven-year term or two five-year presidential terms among its recommended revisions to the constitution, and left the decision with the president. Other important proposed institutional changes include measures to increase the independence and the oversight capacity of the judiciary, and public financing for political parties to reduce the influence of economic interests on politicians.

Arguments for and against

There is far from consensus  on the benefits of reducing presidential term limits, however. This is by far the most controversial of the proposed constitutional changes. The chief advantage according to proponents of the change is that a single presidential mandate would give a sense of urgency and favor a greater concern for the public good; with only one term the president would not be distracted by having to secure support for his reelection. To back their argument, supporters point to Talon’s already significant achievements in  combating corruption – including the firing of public servants with false diplomas and clamping down on police corruption – and implementing decentralization reform that had been in limbo. A faster turn-over at the presidency would also give more political leaders the chance to be elected to the highest executive office, in other words it would favor a greater circulation of political elites.

Opponents counter that a single term would limit accountability as the president does not have to face the electorate again. This could, they argue, be an incentive for single-term presidents to favor their own interests over that of the public. By this logic, President Talon as a wealthy former businessman is in a unique position and constitutional reform cannot be modeled on his behavior. Successors not similarly above financial want are unlikely to be as virtuous. Moreover, opponents to the term reduction express concern that a single mandate is a short time for a political leader to fully exploit his or her leadership potential. A president could be tempted to favor the rise of a dominant party, to be able to continue to influence politics even after leaving office. Critics furthermore contend that changing presidential term limits will open the door for subsequent presidents to similarly tinker with term limit provisions.

Procedures and politics of reform

The full extent of the proposed constitutional changes will be known once they are submitted for approval to the legislature. According to the Minister of Justice, the government is now finalizing and intends to submit a constitutional reform bill to the National Assembly for consideration during an extraordinary session to be called before the end of March. This will not be a brand new fundamental text, but a series of revisions to the current constitution – which is vested with significant legitimacy given its origins in the 1990 National Conference.

President Talon, without his own party to rely on in the National Assembly, must cobble together an overwhelming legislative majority to see his reforms pass. While Talon had initially indicated he wanted to submit his constitutional reform ideas to a referendum, before going to the National Assembly, he was called to order by the Constitutional Court. According to Articles 154 and 155 of the constitution, constitutional revisions must be passed by three quarters (75 percent) of the members of the National Assembly before they can be submitted for final approval in a referendum; should four fifths (80 percent) of legislators approve the bill, a referendum is not needed. A previous ruling by the constitutional court in October 2011, when then President Yayi was exploring options to eliminate term limits as he was coming to the end of his second term, found that presidential terms are among those provisions of the constitution that cannot be changed through a referendum. This would indicate that indeed the president will have to secure an 80 percent legislative majority for his constitutional amendments to be enacted.

Talon has seemingly secured the support of the president of the National Assembly, Adrien Houngbédji. However, in the legislature elected in 2015, the Cauri Forces for an Emerging Benin coalition (FCBE), which supported former President Thomas Boni Yayi (who backed Talon’s opponent in the presidential run-off), remains the largest party with 33 out of 83 seats – enough to block the passage of constitutional reform if the coalition stays together. Some FCBE-leaders have been outspoken critics of the one-term limit initiative, but the FCBE is a fragile coalition, now that Yayi is no longer at the helm of the state. Thus, while Talon has some lobbying to do, he has a good chance that the National Assembly will back his constitutional reform. If it were to pass before April 6, he would have delivered on an important campaign promise during his first year in office – proving his principal argument that one-term presidents are likely to be highly effective.

Burkina Faso – Interesting constitutional innovations

It’s here – Burkina Faso’s new draft constitution. The constitutional review commission presented the results of its deliberations on January 10th. The 92-member commission — with representation from the ruling MPP-party, opposition parties (including the CDP of former President Blaise Compaoré) and civil society (including labor unions and traditional authorities) — was officially seated on September 29, 2016 by President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. The commission is charged with proposing a new constitution that will institute the country’s Fourth Republic.

So what is in this proposed new constitutional text? What are its key provisions in terms of presidential power, executive-legislative relations and term limits?

First of all, the intent is to keep a semi-presidential regime, with a directly elected president and a prime minister accountable to the legislature. The president must appoint a prime minister “from within the legislative majority,” after consulting with that majority (Article 66). Those provisions are the same as in the current constitution from 1991, last amended in November 2015 by the National Transition Council.

Interestingly, Article 56 of the new draft constitution specifies that in the event that the prime minister is backed by a legislative majority which does not support the president, “both have to determine by consensus major policy orientations in the greater interest of the Nation.” Article 56 continues: “In the absence of consensus, it is the Government [i.e. the prime minister and cabinet] that determines and conducts the policy of the Nation.” This is an innovation compared to the current constitution.

In other words, in the event of a conflictual cohabitation between a president and a prime minister from opposing parties, executive power would swing to the prime minister. On the other hand, the president would retain the power to dismiss the prime minister “in the higher interest of the Nation” (Article 66), as is also currently the case. As in the present constitution, a new prime minister and cabinet would require legislative approval within 30 days of being appointed (Article 87), through a vote on the government’s policy statement.

The president’s power of initiative to dismiss the prime minister would keep Burkina Faso in the camp of president-parliamentary regimes, per Shugart and Carey’s (1992) definition. The president may also dissolve the legislature and call for new elections (Article 70), but cannot do so again till 12 months have passed since the last dissolution (same as today’s constitution). Conversely, it would only take 25 percent of legislators to initiate a censure vote against the government (Article 115), as opposed to 30 percent in the current constitution.

The president would keep his reserved policy domain, in the area of defense policy. The head of state is the commander in chief and appoints the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. The president is thus responsible for determining the strategic orientations of the national defense policy and for chairing the National Defense Council (Article 72). This would be a significant power to retain, in the event of cohabitation.

The proposed constitution maintains presidential term limits at two 5-year terms. It was the attempted removal of this term-limit provision which brought about a popular uprising that led to the fall of former President Compaoré in October 2014. An absolute majority of votes is required to win the election, with a run-off if no candidate is able to secure such a majority in the first round (Article 57). An important innovation is the “locking” (‘verrouillage’) of presidential term limits by including them among those intrinsic democratic elements of the constitution (listed in Article 192) that cannot be changed (along with the republican and lay nature of the state, multipartism, and the integrity of the national territory). Another interesting novelty is the introduction of term limits also for legislators (a maximum of three 5-year terms, Article 101). Furthermore, a deputy may serve a maximum of two terms as president of the national assembly (Article 107).

Finally, changing the constitution without recourse to a referendum would become more challenging: it would require a 4/5 legislative majority of members of parliament (Article 190) to pass changes without the need for a popular vote, compared to 3/4 of the members of the legislature as is currently the case.

Next steps: the draft constitution will be discussed in popular forums to be held in all 13 regions of the country and also shared with the diaspora in countries with a significant concentration of Burkinabe immigrants.  The text will thereafter be given to the president for comment and then finalized by the commission before submission to a popular referendum. It will be interesting to see if the proposed innovations – notably with regards to the division of executive powers in the event of disagreements between president and prime minister from opposing parties – will survive in the final version.

Bolivia – Evo Morales Contemplates Fourth Term

Last March, I wrote about the defeated referendum in Bolivia to overturn the existing restrictions on term limits. President Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum. This would have enabled Morales to be elected for a fourth consecutive term. However, with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate. Although Morales had significant popular support and the overwhelming support of the legislature to hold the referendum, the defeat appeared to signal a definitive limit to his presidential aspirations and that seemed to be the end of that.

Rumblings from Evo Morales and his government appear to suggest however, that this is not the end of that. At a rally for supporters of his MAS party, at which Venezuelan Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz spoke, Morales announced his intention, contrary to the results of the referendum and Bolivian law, to seek a fourth term as president and just before Christmas, the MAS named Morales as its candidate for the 2019 elections.

Although Morales highlighted his economic success during the referendum campaign (with growth rates of nearly 7 per cent per annum), he was dogged by a corruption scandal involving a former relationship from 2005 with Gabriela Zapata. Zapata held a position with the Chinese construction firm, CAMC, which had been awarded state contracts worth over US$576 million. Zapata has since been charged with corruption. When all this emerged during the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform. President Morales however, now states that the Bolivian electoral court should nullify the results of the referendum because it was overshadowed and unduly tainted by these allegations. The government even released a documentary in cinemas, El Cártel de la Mentira (Cartel of Lies), which challenges the veracity of these allegations and attacked the president’s critics.

It is difficult to see how Morales and the MAS will get around the current legal restrictions. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. On this basis, Morales’ opponents challenged his right to run in the last election in October 2014. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009 and as such, his opponents claimed he has already held two consecutive terms, and so was constitutionally barred from running again. The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office was not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect.

Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

Term limits have frequently been challenged in Latin America, particularly in those countries in the Andes that Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes.[1] In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term. The Colombian Constitutional Court however, thwarted his efforts. Rafael Correa in Ecuador initiated a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term and Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.

If Morales does succeed in reversing the referendum result and running for office in 2019, this would suggest Bolivia is dangerously close to a form of competitive authoritarian, regimes described as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety. Nicaragua and Venezuela are both already viewed as exemplars of these hybrid regime types. Watch this space to see if Bolivia will join them.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.