The issue of term limits has been once again attracting attention, this time as a result of remarks by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, events in Honduras and a recent poll in Guyana. Just before he left Guyana two months ago, having attended the Caricom Heads of Government Conference, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves expressed disagreement with term limits.
President Zelaya of Honduras is entitled to only one four-year term as President. He tried to amend the constitution to provide for a second four-year term without success. He then attempted to hold a non-binding referendum to elect a constituent assembly to amend the constitution. If approved this constituent assembly would have been established after he left office. This was misrepresented by the military as an attempt to illegally gain a second term in office and they used this to stage a coup, bundling Zelaya out of the country.
Vishnu Bisram, the well known and reputable New York pollster, recently published a poll, reflecting what I believe to be the true state of affairs, namely, that President Jagdeo is the most popular politician in Guyana and if he runs for a third term he will win hands down. The outstanding economic and social progress in Guyana under President Jagdeo’s leadership, amidst great challenges, and a number of initiatives in the world financial architecture and climate change have ensured Jagdeo’s stature as a leading statesman. The poll confirms this.
Most countries in Latin America impose term limits. Venezuela is the only country that has abolished them altogether. Most countries in the Westminster system, with a Prime Minister as head of Government, do not have term limits. In most, though not all of these countries, governments rotate between two main parties or through differently constituted coalitions. In a few like Singapore and Malaysia, one political party has remained in office for a long time. There are no demands in these countries for term limits, perhaps because the Prime Ministers relied on democratic principles and wisely adopted successful development models.
In recent years many countries, particularly in Africa, imposed term limits. Since the early 1990s 18 African presidents completed two terms in office. Eight retired while ten sought amendments to their constitutions to remain in office. Seven were successful. (Daniel Vencovsky: Presidential Term Limits in Africa: 20 January 2008). It is fair to conclude that the trend towards term limits for presidents is strong. It is perhaps irreversible in Latin America but not yet so in Africa although the unmistakable tendency is in that direction. For prime ministers in this region and elsewhere there is no such trend, nor demand.
The Guyana Constitution Reform Commission, by a majority of 12 to 4, across party lines, recommended in 2000 that “a person shall hold the office of president for a maximum of two terms and those terms shall be consecutive.” The Bill that came to the National Assembly limited the terms to two but did not provide for them to be consecutive. The Bill was supported by both political parties and is now law.
Guyana’s experience which led to the imposition of term limits had to do with its experience and history. The era of the “Big Man’ in politics, both in Guyana and Africa, was coming to an end by the 1990s. It was felt that provision should be made to ensure that leaders should not be allowed to remain in office indefinitely in view of the tendency towards authoritarian rule even where these leaders were elected democratically. With the exception of Guyana, the Caribbean had no real experience of ‘Big Man’ politics. Without the experience of the hubristic attitude, stagnant economy and corrupt behaviour that lifetime or even long term leadership of a country can bring, even where electoral democracy prevails, the strong support for term limits, as in Guyana, cannot really be appreciated in countries like St. Vincent.
Term limits are matters for individual electorates. The abolition of term limits in Venezuela was supported by its electorate. Term extensions from one to two in Brazil and Columbia were democratically implemented. So were the imposition of term limits in Africa and Guyana. It is a matter for each people to decide based on their own experiences and circumstances. One size does not fit all. Asked if he will respect term limits, Paul Kagame, the internationally acclaimed President of Rwanda, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN on July 19, responded in the affirmative and said that the constitutional provision was there for a purpose.
In Guyana, despite several statements by President Jagdeo that he is not interested in a third term, speculation continues to be generated by fanciful, ludicrous and denigratory analyses and scenarios, concocted in the twisted, becloaked, minds of self described and attention seeking ‘essayists,’ specializing in trash journalism and obsessive character assassination. They can and should be ignored. (www.conversationtree.gy)