Tenure: Limits to Time in Office

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, as in the examples below:

●  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?, 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 election 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 remove a constitutional term limit – 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 ‘selectocracy’ 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/edition04/6343.htm.