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President Xi Jinping has recently managed to abolish term limits, sounding alarm bells that China is about to return to strongman rule.

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What compels some leaders to discard the rules of the very systems that led them to power? Scholar Alexander Baturo estimates that from 1960 to 2008, there were seventy-eight political leaders who managed to hold onto power after they’d constitutionally lost the right to have it, in countries spanning hemispheres and economic statuses.

Power grabs come in many forms, as Baturo explains. Leaders can step down, but handpick successors who will act as puppets (e.g. Russia and Kenya in 2000). They can cleverly “promulgate a new constitution during one term and start a new term countdown after re-election, in which case the second term becomes the first all over again” (as in Peru and Kyrgyzstan in 2000). They can change the length of terms (Congo and Uzbekistan in 2002), alter the constitution to “allow re-election in a single-term regime (Peru 1993, Brazil 1997), or to allow one more term ad hoc (Korea 1969, Namibia 1998).” They can suspend elections (the Philippines in 1972, Angola in 1992), alter laws to change term limits and give a candidate an unlimited number of shots at leadership (Uganda in 20015, Kazakhstan in 2007) or brazenly abolish elections entirely (Equatorial Guinea in 1973, Turkmenistan in 1999).

Unsurprisingly, although these leaders can seem omnipotent, the reasons that compel them to are all too human. Many leaders who make power grabs seem to do so out of fear of losing their lifestyle, fear of their successors, or fear that they’ve left too much undone.

Leadership is a heavy burden, but often comes with a comfortable lifestyle. Former president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel said of the luxuries of leadership, “I find myself in the world of privileges, exceptions, perks; in the world of VIPs who gradually lose track of how much butter or a streetcar ticket costs, how to make a cup of coffee, how to drive a car, and how to place a telephone call … I suddenly have a greater understanding of those who are starting to lose their battle with the temptations of power.” Stepping down leaves leaders with the uncomfortable prospect of losing their position, privileges and wealth—and worse, at the hands of an unknown successor.

Bathuro also noted that leaders often came into power with specific ideals and hopes for change in their country. But political change is arduous, and often, a term is not long enough to carry through major reforms. Still, Bathuro encourages building defined term limits into the heart of constitutions, and educating the public to pay close attention to their leaders’ character and motivations. A greater step still would be rewarding those who do exemplify graceful leadership, as in the case of the former President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano, who was awarded the Mo Ibrahim prize for stepping down before he had to.

Nonetheless, Bathuro’s comprehensive study leads him to the conclusion that ultimately, no system, however well-designed or supervised, is foolproof. “If the stakes are high,” he warns, “an unconstrained president in any variety of regime will be likely to do his or her best to overstay his or her welcome.”


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British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 3 (July 2010), pp. 635-662
Cambridge University Press