Presidential Term Limits and the International Community

Christina Murray, Eric Alston and Micha Wiebusch 
Working paper 2018.09

Proposed changes to presidential term limits are almost always highly contested, and have attracted international and regional attention from many external actors including governmental organizations (IGOs), and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). A central question that faces these external actors is the extent to which it is legitimate to take a position in presidential term limit debates. When they have engaged the question, external actors have increasingly focused on the relationship between stability, conflict prevention, constitutionalism and democracy. This chapter considers the policy concerning presidential term limits of three major IGOs, the UN, the AU and the OAS, each of which has had considerable involvement in countries where term limit changes have been linked to conflict. It further discusses the way in which IDEA, an IGO with a softer mandate, has responded to the debate on term limits, as well as the output of a number of other international actors like the Venice Commission, ECOWAS, DRI, the Carter Center and the West African Civil Society Forum (WACSOF). This review of international actors’ responses to the question of presidential term limits suggests an increasing international consensus that, in countries with a history of authoritarianism and weak democratic institutions, presidential term limits can play an important role in strengthening democratic processes and reducing the likelihood of conflict. Importantly, justifications for raising concerns about the removal of term limits are gradually moving from the safer space of demanding that constitutionally established processes be used to more outspoken condemnation of proposals to remove or weaken term limits based on a recognition of the dangers of prolonged incumbency and its links to democratic backsliding.

Key Words:  Presidential Term Limits; United Nations; African Union; Organization of American States; Venice Commission; NGO; International IDEA; international institutions

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