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Debate: Term limits for elected officials

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Should limits exist on the number of terms elected officials can serve?

Background and context

Limiting the term in office served by elected politicians has been a controversial issue in a many countries since the early 1990s, although not for the same reason. In a number of countries, for example most of Latin America, politicians can only serve one term at a time in an elected office. There are usually no restrictions upon serving in a post for a second time, providing a period out of office has elapsed since the previous term, and politicians are free to stand for other offices instead, so a state governor might serve a subsequent term as a senator before returning to run for the state governorship again. In several such countries there has been considerable debate over whether such limits are a good thing (often prompted by the perceived success of a particular President, e.g. Cardoso of Brazil or Menem of Argentina) and constitutional amendments have been proposed, and sometimes passed, relaxing the restrictions. In other countries, particularly the USA (where only the President’s term is limited by the constitution, to two terms), the debate has been over whether limiting all representatives to two consecutive terms in an office would be desirable. This proposal was part of the Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America” (it failed to pass the Senate) and has been enacted at local level through referenda in a number of states in the 1990s, although many of these initiatives have later been ruled unconstitutional. In any debate on this issue, those in favour of term limits will need to clarify the exact form their proposals will take: should the limit be to one term or two, can politicians subsequently stand again for a post they once occupied, should all elected offices be covered by the restriction?[1]

Contents

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Power and corruption: Would term limits ensure that politicians do not become too powerful, and possibly corrupt?

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Yes

  • Term limits ensure that politicians do not become corrupted by power: There is the potential while in office that politicians will lose touch with the people and principles which got them elected in the first place. Representatives who spend too many years in office, living in the national capital far from their constituents and surrounded by lobbyists and party managers, easily become part of a professional governing class, remote from the concerns of normal people. Term limits would recreate a class of citizen-legislators, who see politics as a brief chance to make their country better, rather than as a long-term comfortable career for themselves.[2]
  • The judgement and perhaps even honesty of politicians is jeopardized by the need to constantly prepare for re-election: Elections often force them to do the popular thing rather than the right one, to act in the narrow interest of their constituents rather than in the national one, and to pander to big business or other lobby groups in order to secure funding.[3]
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No

  • Experience is very important in politics, and increases iwth time in office: Even the most able new office-holder or representative will take many months or even years to get to grips fully with their new job. Policy issues and legislative bills are necessarily complicated and the public is best served by a system which allows some continuity of service through democratic re-election for experienced politicians. If such politicians become too divorced from the concerns of their voters, then they will lose their next re-election campaign; indeed, it is the regular need to fight such campaigns which ensures accountability and keeps politicians in touch with grass roots opinion.[4]
  • Corruption is actually more likely to occur in a system with term limits, as there is no incentive for an office-holder or representative to do their best for the voters, whom they will not need to face again. Indeed, less honest politicians may become more criminally corrupt, seeing the need to profit from their position as quickly as possible. Alternatively, they may cosy up to big business in the hope of landing lucrative lobbying jobs when out of office.[5]
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Incumbents: Would term limits positively effect issues related to incumbency in elections?

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Yes

  • Term limits will overcome the advantage that incumbents have in any re-election campaign: This is regardless of the relative abilities and policies of them and their opponents. These advantages stem from name recognition and from the greater access to funding that incumbent candidates have from business and lobbying groups (in country’s where such funding is legal and where individual campaign expenditure is not tightly controlled).[6]
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No

  • Term limits are unnecessary, as voters can use their judgment to expel politicians from their posts: Term limits are an insult to the intelligence of voters, who in a democratic system are perfectly at liberty to get rid of an unsatisfactory incumbent through the ballot box. Preventing a potentially popular candidate from standing again simply removes the right to make important political decisions from the electorate. If incumbents do seem to be unfairly advantaged in some countries, it is because of other aspects of their political systems, e.g. lack of state funding for political parties or of controls on campaign expenditure, not because re-election is allowed.[7]
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Fresh faces vs. amateurs: Would term limits cause an influx of fresh faces for good or amateurs for bad?

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Yes

  • Term limits would bring fresh faces, talents and experiences into the political process: This would include those of many people who would now consider a political career. It would ensure that most law and policy makers would have experience of the “real world” outside party political machines and academia, and bring more first-hand knowledge of business and industry into government.[8]
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No

  • Amateur politicians are likely to be naive and easily exploited by lobbyists for business and other interest groups: Term limits are also likely to affect the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government, as the power of the Head of State and civil service can no longer be balanced effectively by experienced parliamentarians, able to call the government to account and investigate its actions.[9]

See also

External links and resources

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