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How long should presidents rule? On Tuesday, Colombia’s senate approved a national referendum to amend the constitution—again—to allow the popular president Alvaro Uribe to stand for election next year to yet another term in office.

You should care because this is representative of a big phenomenon that spans the whole developing world. For good reasons, many developing countries built presidential term limits into their constitutions—the contracts that govern how people agree to be ruled by each other.

But that wisdom often goes in the dumpster once popular presidents are in office, and countries change the constitution to keep their current favorite person in power longer. This has happened in recent years in Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, Uganda, Chad, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, Niger, and elsewhere. What a sad, predictable trend.

Let me be absolutely clear: The reason that these changes are terrible has nothing to do with whether or not any given president is good or bad. Term limits in Colombia have an inherent value that goes far beyond the quality of one person, and I make no judgment whatsoever on Uribe’s presidency in particular when I say that ending that presidency and all others at the constitutionally appointed time is the right thing to do.

Gideon Maltz has explained why term limits are important in developing countries: They help prevent the creation of political machines that guarantee an individual’s longevity in power as surely as a de jure dictatorship, they help prevent an accumulation of power sufficient to encourage its abuse while a longtime president is in office, and they nurture the development of genuine and diverse political parties. James Fearon points out that term limits are preferable when voters use elections to select “good type” politicians up front, but less desirable when voters use elections to punish bad behavior at the back end. Credibly punishing bad behavior is hard in weak institutional environments, suggesting that term limits do more good in poorer countries.

Some research points to the shortcomings of term limits. Early work (pdf) by Timothy Besley and Anne Case based on data from U.S. states suggested that term limits for governors might lessen accountability for profligate spending by “lame ducks”, but more recent work (pdf) by Chiara Dalle Nogare fails to find this pattern in the broader world. U.S. states do not face a crisis of legitimacy of the most basic institutions of governance; many developing countries do, and they need term limits. This is why consensus indicators of governance quality such as the Polity IV project penalize regimes that modify constitutional term limits.

There are rays of hope to build on. Wise leaders have avoided the temptation to negate constitutional term limits, even in very poor countries with tenuous institutions. Nigeria and Zambia, among others, recently considered but then dropped efforts to change their constitutions to lock current presidents into power. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation awards a generous and brilliantly-conceived cash prize to African leaders “who have left office … having served the constitutional term as stipulated when taking office”, and former leaders from Mozambique and Botswana have won it. Moving from carrot to stick, CGD non-resident fellow Nicolas van de Walle has proposed (pdf) that donors agree to cut off all aid to any government whose president lingers in office more than 12 years—a great proposal that deserves to be considered anew.

One of the most poignant public places I have ever seen in the United States is the empty crypt directly beneath the center of the national capitol building. It is empty because, though it was built to hold George Washington’s body, his family declined to transfer it there. This simple act transformed the Capitol from a monument to one man into a monument to open democracy. Washington’s life reflected this same principle: He voluntarily stepped down after two terms, regardless of enthusiastic popularity.

Part of Washington’s success as president was to ensure that a cadre of qualified people was available to run for office when his term ended. One African president who visited CGD years ago was asked at that visit whether the rumors were true that he planned to change his constitution to allow his rule to continue; his two-point response was that “the people want me” and “all my opponents are traitors” (he did end up staying). But one of the most basic tasks of a president is to nurture viable successors, job one for an institution-builder. Any president who truly is the only viable candidate by the end of the constitutionally appointed term has utterly failed as a leader.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.