Presidential Term Limits Are Essential to Democracy

On July 28, President Barack Obama delivered an historic speech at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa. It was the first time that a serving U.S. president had ever visited this important African organization and met with African leaders there.

Mr. Obama noted that one of his chief goals as president has been to transform America’s relationship with Africa. He added that the United States is dedicated to working with African nations as equal partners. To the applause of those attending the event, he said: “I believe Africa’s progress will …depend on democracy, because Africans, like people everywhere, deserve the dignity of being in control of their own lives. We all know what the ingredients of real democracy are. They include free and fair elections, but also freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly.”

Mr. Obama continued that term limits for presidents are an essential part of democracy, noting: “I have to also say that Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end.” President Obama praised South Africa’s late President Nelson Mandela for having left office after his constitutionally-mandated terms had ended, noting that President Mandela had truly set an example for all African leaders.

Presidential term limits are, indeed, fundamental to democracy. According to opinion polls, 74 percent of Africans, or three quarters of the men and women living on the continent, do not want their presidents to be able to serve more than two consecutive terms in office. Constitutionally mandated term limits provide a mechanism for holding leaders accountable, reduces the tendency toward corruption by ensuring political turnover, and give new generations the opportunity to compete for political office and choose new leaders.

Large majorities of Africans want more democracy. Support for democracy and free and fair elections are at the heart of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. According to the Afro barometer, which is the gold standard for independent opinion polls in Africa, 84 percent of Africans support free and fair elections, 77 percent reject one-party rule, and 72 percent believe democracy is preferable to any other system of governance. These are not abstract data points. They are overwhelming and powerful numbers that reflect the very real opinions of millions of people.

A number of presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Africa between now and the end of 2016, including in countries where presidential term limits are already deeply woven into the political fabric. Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, and Benin have upcoming elections where sitting presidents will not be on the ballot. Elsewhere in Africa, however, term limits are under threat. Changing constitutions and eliminating term limits reduces people’s confidence in their institutions, weakens overall governance, and serves only the interests of the person or party in power. In democratic systems, strong leaders abide by constitutions, step aside when their terms of office come to an end, and support free and fair elections.

Shortly after America’s independence from colonial power Great Britain, America’s first president, George Washington, set an important precedent by stepping down in 1796 after just two, four year terms in office. He did so because he believed that the new, democratic government of the United States should not be dominated by any one man.

Even though it was not required at the time by our Constitution, all of the presidents who followed George Washington throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century observed his important precedent of not serving for more than two terms. After President Franklin Roosevelt broke this tradition by being elected to four terms, the U.S. Congress approved, and a majority of states ratified, the 22nd amendment to our Constitution. This amendment limits presidents to serve for no more than two terms in office. All presidents since then have strictly abided by term limits to the great benefit of our democracy.

Respecting presidential term limits and constitutions as they are written is crucial for realizing the aspirations of an entire continent and strengthening democratic institutions for future generations. As Secretary John Kerry said in his August 2014 address to the Civil Society Forum, which occurred one day before last year’s U.S.-African Leaders Summit in Washington, the United States “will continue to stand up for constitutionally mandated term limits, as it has in countries around the world, including in Africa” and that it “will urge leaders not to alter national constitutions for personal or political gain.”