Fixed Limits to Tenure

Fixed limits to tenure are a safeguard against a tendency of strong personalities to stay beyond the time when they best serve the country.

There is a danger in letting leaders govern for too long.  The voters can remove them in a democracy, but sometimes leaders who continue to be popular develop a sense that they are irreplaceable.  The American Constitution imposes a two-term limit on its presidents for example, to avoid this danger, but Britain does not have a written Constitution – so political parties are required to exert the relevant discipline.

There are several examples of strong leaders trying to stay in office too long: 

●  History would have judged Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair more favourably if they had gracefully yielded power earlier, before their hubris led them to make mistakes ( 

●  The BBC posed the question Robert Mugabe: Is Zimbabwe’s ex-president a hero or villain?, when reviewing his 37 years in power, noting that:

“For some, he will always remain a hero who brought independence and an end to white-minority rule. Even those who forced him out blamed his wife and “criminals” around him.

But to his growing number of critics, this highly educated, wily politician became the caricature of an African dictator, who destroyed an entire country in order to keep his job.”

●  Donald Trump refused to accept that he had lost the election in 2020 and he encouraged his supporters to attack the Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the result.  This threat to America’s Constitution was unsuccessful, as described in a Reuters report: Under heavy guard, Congress back to work after Trump supporters storm U.S. Capitol.  Trump was later impeached for his actions.

In a democracy, a strong leader who is still popular can appeal to the people to change the fixed limits to tenure – as was the case in a Venezuelan referendum where, as reported by the BBC, Chavez wins chance of fresh term.  The people’s approval then gives legitimacy to the extended term but, looking at some of the examples quoted above, it seems that eight years is the maximum advisable term for a leader – as is the constitutional limit in America.

Authoritarian leaders can also have term limits imposed upon them if they are appointed by a ‘selectorate’ in a one-party system (   The LSE article, Making Autocracy Work, noted that  “Leadership turnover is greater in successful compared to unsuccessful autocracies” (p. 49).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6343a.htm.