Limits to Time in Office                                 

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/6343.htm)

People tend to see patriotism and loyalty as virtues, but there is a distinction between loyalty to the country and loyalty to the leader.  For stability, it is more important to be loyal to the institutions – such as the British monarchy (as a symbol of the whole country and its system of government), the American Constitution, or a one-party system – than to any one leader, political party or administration.

Leaders should be changed regularly; fixed limits to tenure are a safeguard against the tendencies of strong personalities to stay beyond the time when they best serve the country.  In a democracy, a strong leader who is still popular can appeal to the people to remove a constitutional term limit,[1] and the people’s approval then gives the appearance of legitimacy to the extended term but, looking at some anecdotal evidence, it seems that ten years is the maximum advisable term for a leader.[2]  Authoritarian leaders can also have term limits imposed upon them if they are appointed by a ‘selectocracy’ in a one-party system (, and “Leadership turnover is greater in successful compared to unsuccessful autocracies.” [3]

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] For example, on 16 February 2009, the BBC reported on the result of a referendum in which the Venezuelan people approved an end to term limits for elected officials; the article was entitled Chavez wins chance of fresh term and was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7891856.stm.

[2] It is hard to do better than provide anecdotal evidence for the need for a maximum of ten years in office.  Britain has term limits for governments to present themselves for re-election, but no limit on the number of consecutive terms that they can serve – but a party may change its leader whilst it is still in power.  The Conservative Party removed Margaret Thatcher after she had been Prime Minister for 11 years, partly because she had ceased to listen to either her colleagues or the people (notably in the example of the ‘poll tax’, cited earlier in this section).  A term limit would have spared both her and the party from the embarrassment caused by the need to mount a challenge in order to remove her.  The previous longest-serving Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, was impeded by ill health towards the end of his 15-year leadership and would also have been spared embarrassment by a term limit.  The lack of term limits has been a huge problem in other countries; Robert Mugabe’s stint in Zimbabwe, of more than 30 years, is an egregious example: he was seen initially as a liberator of his people but subsequently as their oppressor. 

[3] Timothy Besley and Masayuki Kudamatsu, in Making Autocracy Work (op. cit.), correlated successful autocracies with higher leadership turnover in their conclusion, on p. 49 of the pdf publication of this article, which was available in May 2014 at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/3764/1/Making_Autocracy_Work.pdf.