Former Dictatorships Now Talk Term Limits

Who would have thought a year ago there would be a debate over term limits in some of the most static and autocratic nations in the world?

Since February, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, and Cuba have been engaged in this debate. Even Raul Castro — the new Cuban president — proposed term limits while commenting on the lack of young leaders in government.

Presidential term limits are an excellent method to promote democracy. They bring new talent into government with fresh perspectives and ideas. They ensure the executive branch of government does not corrode into a dictatorial regime or oligarchy. And they allow for more comprehensive representation of the population. 

In the 1960's, Fidel Castro may have represented a large segment of Cuban society’s backlash against a perceived threat of Western cultural and economic expansion. Although his charisma and anti-bourgeoisie message may have unified the country in 1960, five decades of rule created a one-party system that relied on a single leader. 

This static governance has stripped the Cuban people of comprehensive representation. Additionally, the barriers of entry into public service have become too high, costing the government a high price in lost talent. Raul Castro has recognized this opportunity cost and has kicked off a debate on the value of term limits in Cuba.

Term limits may naturally pull autocratic regimes toward democracy, but they also present challenges to international relations. A major challenge is the quickened pace of changing national interests, as new perspectives enter politics and policymakers are held accountable to public opinion. 

For example, due to increased frequency of elections, groups like Hezbollah and Hamas could gain power through transparent and fair elections. Although this might better represent the population’s present perspective, this shift would place the U.S. in an awkward diplomatic position. 

This conundrum could be a reality in some countries in the near future. Currently, Egypt is in the process of constitutional reforms including presidential term limits set at two four-year terms. Yemen is debating a two five-year term limit. And probably most interesting of all is Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki of Iraq, who has refused to run for a third term and is backing a constitutional amendment setting limit for prime minister at two four-year terms.

So, are term limits positive? How will they affect international relations? 

Photo Credit: pietroizzo

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Joseph Martin

Joseph is a Policy Fellow at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an organization focused on building a free and democratic Syria. He is a second year MA Middle East Studies candidate at George Washington University. Previously, he served in the Marine Corps Reserves for eight years and has lived in Egypt, Oman, South Africa, and Botswana. When he is not planning his next big adventure, he loves to mountain bike, backpack, and climb.

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