Russia’s comedy shows the gap in term limits

The world’s largest nation is Russia. However, despite its vastness (almost twice the size of the second biggest country, Canada), life seems to rotate around two individuals, Mr. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.The two, dubbed in some circles as Siamese twins, seem to decide between themselves who governs the nation and who deputises.  In the latest swap, Putin will return to the helm for, at least, the next 12 years, having left only four years ago.

The world’s largest nation is Russia. However, despite its vastness (almost twice the size of the second biggest country, Canada), life seems to rotate around two individuals, Mr. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

The two, dubbed in some circles as Siamese twins, seem to decide between themselves who governs the nation and who deputises.  In the latest swap, Putin will return to the helm for, at least, the next 12 years, having left only four years ago.

Twelve years from 2012, Putin might reciprocate the good gesture and reward Medvedev with the presidency again since the younger communist kept the seat warm and did not renege on their agreement.

The lesson we pick from the political comedy between Russia’s two men is one: That presidential term limits are not necessarily the distinct yardstick that should be used to measure a country’s democratic maturity. 

The growing chorus today tends to dwell on term limits as a key indicator of a functioning democracy as opposed to the means for attaining these virtues such as the process of electioneering.

No doubt that, holding the executive to term limits is generally seen as a good and convenient feature in well-functioning states. It increases responsiveness and places the correct incentives on leaders to be accountable to their constituents.  

Indeed for Africa, where some leaders have turned the presidency into a monarchy, in most cases only enjoying the accolades that come with the office without caring for their populace, the issue of term limits becomes even more important.  

But in reality and going by what we see in the Russian circus today, term limits have turned out to be a feature that is easily manipulated. It has turned out to be a principle that does not have a significant effect on limiting political careers since leaders who are term-limited simply switch to other elected positions to continue their careers or hand pick their relatives to fill their places or have stand-ins elected to occupy their seats until they are allowed to run again.

Therefore, much as term limits ensure possibility of change of policy and help institutionalise the democratic process, they do not necessarily bar officials from re-running for the very offices they occupied. 

With term limits, an incumbent can easily manipulate his way back to the helm by simply anointing a successor (could be a spouse, sibling or close associate), who after one term or two, gives way, just like what we see in Russia. And it’s not Russia alone; the stories are many across the globe.

In my view, what we need or should demand are functioning and independent institutions that guarantee a free and fair mechanism of choosing leaders.

More than term limits, we need a level playing field where, at least, candidates have an equal footing and where the outcome is not easily manipulated.

If indeed democracy is the will of the majority, an election devoid of bribery of voters, intimidation, or vote rigging, means that the democratic aspiration of the majority will be respected, irrespective of whether that candidate is running a third, fourth or fifth term. 

Zambia is the latest African example to show that peaceful transfer of power is possible. The triumph of an opposition candidate and the willingness of the incumbent to vacate the seat is what, in my own understanding, constitutes a true reflection of democratic success and not limitation of occupancy. 

In other words, it’s more to do with running an election in a transparent and credible way and having a mechanism that will ensure that the outcome is respected.

In addition, for this to flourish, it has to be accompanied by existence of strong political organisations that mean business. There must be political parties with functioning structures and internal mechanisms of credibly choosing or recalling their national leaders.

This is the only difference between Africa and countries like Germany, Italy, France or England that do not have term limits. For these countries, a leader whose popularity is waning is simply shown the next exit.

UK’s Labour party is one of the most vivid examples, not to mention the circus that happens almost every month in Japan.

Africans have consistently lacked such political institutions.  They instead see parties that are riding behind strong individuals. Apart from South Africa where the ANC threw out Thabo Mbeki, before completing his term, there’s hardly another example to pick on.

Therefore, much as terms limits add value to the democratic dispensation of any country, it should not be taken as the key yardstick for measuring how democratic a country is. What we need most are functioning institutions that guarantee a free and fair exit or entry of a particular individual.

On twitter @aasiimwe
akaeus@yahoo.com

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