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Term limits for PMs ...unlikely and maybe unnecessary

Sir Ronald SANDERS

Sunday, December 01, 2019

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A debate has now started in parts of the Caribbean about whether there should be term limits for prime ministers. The debate arises from the view that longevity in office leads to abuse and to the suppression of challengers, both within political parties specifically, and the political system more generally.

Partly responsible for this is that, increasingly, election campaigns highlight the party leader as if he/she is running for office independently of the political party. But, while the appeal of a leader of a political party could be a deciding factor in whether a party wins an election or not, that leader's election alone does not deliver a Government or the prime ministership. The party's representatives must win the majority of electoral areas or constituencies in order for the party's leader to become prime minister and to form a Government.

Further, if in the course of its governing a country, the ruling party, within its own system, chooses a new leader who is a Member of Parliament, that new leader becomes the prime minister. Even if the incumbent holder of the office wanted to remain prime minister he/she could not do so once the majority of elected parliamentary representatives withdraw their support in favour of someone else.

Also, if the majority of Members of Parliament from the governing and Opposition parties express, by a vote, a lack of confidence in the prime minister, he/she could not remain in office. There would be two options: Either resign as prime minister and hand over to an elected representative favoured by the majority in Parliament, or dissolve the Parliament and call a general election. Either way, that specific term of office as prime minister would end.

A third way in which prime ministers could be removed from office is by the will of the people at a general election. If the majority of the electorate do not support the political party in office and choose another party, the term of the incumbent prime minister ends automatically and the leader of the newly elected party becomes the new prime minister.

Given these various ways in which the holder of the office of prime minister can be removed, is there really any need to impose term limits?

The terms of office of those who have served as prime ministers in the Caribbean, and in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) where the system originated, have been terminated by one of the means described above. Outside the Caribbean, very few prime ministers have been allowed to serve beyond three terms. In the most notable cases in the UK, Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign three years into her third term, and Labour Party leader Tony Blair was eased out two years into his third term.

Only strong and popular leaders of Caribbean political parties have managed to retain conclusive leadership of their parties for more than two terms. This is spectacularly so in the case of Prime Minister Keith Mitchell of Grenada, who served three terms from 1995 to 2008 and came back to be elected in 2013 for two more terms. He is currently a year into his fifth term. Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines is another example of how the office of prime minister can be retained as a result of political party control. He is currently serving his 18th year continuously in office, and his fourth term as prime minister, as a result of his party winning four consecutive general elections since 2001.

Two things should be noted here. First, in the case of Guyana, which is a republic with an executive president, a parliamentary amendment to the constitution in 2000 limited the holder of the office of president to two terms. Also, in Guyana, the president is elected directly by the people from a slate of candidates put up by political parties. This is the most direct form of election of a head of Government. As explained above, there is no direct election of the prime minister in Caribbean countries.

Second, there is no valid comparison between the way in which a person becomes prime minister in a Caribbean country and the manner in which the president of the United States is chosen. Contrary to popular belief, the president of the United States is not directly elected by the people; rather, the electorate casts ballots for members of the US Electoral College (proportionate representatives of each state), who, in turn, cast direct votes for candidates for the presidency. That is how, for instance, Donald Trump was elected president, even though his opponent, Hilary Clinton, polled more votes nationally than he did.

The 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution specifically limits a person serving as president to two elected four-year terms. The utility of this limitation is being questioned now by President Donald Trump, as it was, in the past, by other holders of the office, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

In 1986, Reagan famously said in a Washington Post interview: “I have come to the conclusion that the 22nd amendment was a mistake. Shouldn't the people have the right to vote for someone as many times as they want to vote for him? They send senators up there for 30 or 40 years, congressmen the same.”

Given all this, it is difficult to see how a prohibition could be placed on the number of terms a person could serve as prime minister unless the parliaments of Caribbean countries amended their constitutions to state explicitly that “no person shall serve in the office of prime minister for more than two consecutive terms”. That is most unlikely to happen and, in any event, it appears unnecessary, given the constitutional ways in which a prime minister may now be removed from office.

Term limits have been set by the electorate, simply by voting out unpopular parties and their leaders. The best safeguards against abuse of office by prime ministers are the will of the people at general election and the good sense of the holders of the office who should resolve to remain legitimately in it only for as long as it's clear that the people want them.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com.


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