The curse of longevity in office

In a demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try like Canada, most prime min­is­ters tend to remain in office for approx­i­mate­ly 10 years. This was true of Robert Borden, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper. Some served far short­er terms but man­aged to leave their mark on the coun­try, e.g. Lester Pearson.

Then there are the long­timers such as William Lyon Mackenzie King and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. When the lat­ter two resigned it was wide­ly con­sid­ered that they had over­stayed their time, but they had not harmed the coun­try. Their capac­i­ty to be capri­cious and to inflict unde­sir­able poli­cies on their fel­low cit­i­zens was lim­it­ed by a con­sti­tu­tion and by a series of insti­tu­tions, i.e. cab­i­net, Parliament, the Supreme Court and a free press. The same can­not be said of many long-serv­ing lead­ers in many oth­er coun­tries. They have had a nefar­i­ous effect on their nations and their people.

Some of the more notable exam­ples are to be found on the con­ti­nent of Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), Mobutu Sese Seko ruled as pres­i­dent for more than 30 years. During his time in office he ran­sacked the pub­lic trea­sury to acquire a per­son­al for­tune of some $8 bil­lion, invest­ed in banks and real estate in Europe, to the point that he became known as the king of the klep­to­crats. When he was final­ly forced out of office he left behind him a total­ly impov­er­ished pop­u­la­tion and a coun­try beset by civ­il wars which were to claim more than five mil­lion lives.

In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe has been prime min­is­ter or pres­i­dent for near­ly 40 years. Over that time Zimbabwe has gone from being one of the rich­est coun­tries in Africa to being one of the poor­est. His cor­rupt and inept rule has dev­as­tat­ed the coun­try. And Mugabe has man­aged to stay in pow­er by seri­al­ly vio­lat­ing the polit­i­cal and civ­il rights of his oppo­nents. Now 92 and in his dotage, he clings to pow­er. (Other African exam­ples include Angola and Uganda.)

In North Africa, the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was notable for its cor­rup­tion and bru­tal­i­ty, includ­ing the impris­on­ment and tor­ture of thou­sands of his polit­i­cal oppo­nents. And when he was final­ly over­thrown in 2011, he left behind a coun­try beset by seri­ous socio-eco­nom­ic prob­lems and a chaot­ic polit­i­cal future.

In the same year anoth­er long-serv­ing Arab dic­ta­tor in the per­son of Muammar Qaddafi of Libya was also over­thrown, and then killed. His bru­tal one-man rule had ensured that the coun­try was devoid of any insti­tu­tions or civ­il soci­ety which could fill the void left by his demise. Libya has since been the scene of total polit­i­cal chaos and an end­less series of civ­il wars.

Somewhat less dra­mat­ic in its con­se­quences has been the 18-year term of President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika in Algeria. Although his time in office has not been as long as some of the oth­ers, Bouteflika has been close to the top of the Algerian polit­i­cal scene for over 40 years. (When I first went to Algeria in 1971 he was already Minister of Foreign Affairs.) Now aged and ail­ing, Bouteflika is unable to exer­cise any lead­er­ship in a gov­ern­ment beset by inter­nal divi­sions and seri­ous eco­nom­ic prob­lems. Algeria bad­ly needs a new helms­man, even if it is one cho­sen by the army and the secu­ri­ty ser­vices rather than by the people.

Mobutu seized pow­er in a mil­i­tary coup in 1965, five years after the vast, min­er­al-rich nation gained inde­pen­dence from Belgium. After a leg­endary, cor­rupt dic­ta­tor­ship that last­ed more than 30 years and left the coun­try then called Zaire in sham­bles, he was over­thrown in 1997 by Laurent Kabila.

Then there is Russia. In a recent edi­tion mark­ing the 100th anniver­sary of the Russian rev­o­lu­tion, The Economist pub­lished a cov­er fea­tur­ing a pic­ture of Vladimir Putin in impe­r­i­al uni­form, under the ban­ner head­line “A tsar is born.” Not a bad descrip­tion. During the 18 years that he has served as pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter, Putin has turned what was a strug­gling democ­ra­cy into a full-blown dic­ta­tor­ship. He has cen­tral­ized pow­er in the Kremlin to an extent not seen since impe­r­i­al days. By most­ly foul means, he has dec­i­mat­ed oppo­si­tion par­ties and lead­ers. He has tried to com­pen­sate for the country’s poor eco­nom­ic per­for­mance by stok­ing the fires of nation­al­ism. Military adven­tures in Georgia, Syria, Crimea and east­ern Ukraine, and the forg­ing of an unholy alliance with the hier­ar­chy of the Russian Orthodox Church have all been put into ser­vice. His recent for­ays into the inter­nal pol­i­tics of the United States, France, Great Britain and Germany are the actions of a total­ly uncon­strained dic­ta­tor with impe­r­i­al ambi­tions. He is a poster boy for the dan­gers posed by over­ly long stints in power.

In Central Asia there are the sad cas­es of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The for­mer was ruled for 30 years by Islam Karimov until his death in 2016. The lat­ter is under the rule of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in pow­er almost as long. Both coun­tries suf­fer from ever-wors­en­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic problems.

In South Asia the prob­lem is less one of indi­vid­u­als in office, than of endur­ing dynas­ties. Members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ruled in India with sad con­se­quences for most of its 70-year his­to­ry as an inde­pen­dent state. In neigh­bour­ing Pakistan there is the Bhutto dynasty which has been in office on and off since the ear­ly 1970s, while doing very lit­tle to ame­lio­rate the con­di­tion of mil­lions of Pakistanis liv­ing in extreme pover­ty. Both these dynas­ties appear to have reached their “best by” dates, leav­ing the helm to more dynam­ic and imag­i­na­tive leaders.

In Bangladesh pol­i­tics con­tin­ue to be par­a­lyzed by the con­flict between what are known as “the bat­tling begums.” For the last 30 years, Shiekh Hassina, the daugh­ter of a for­mer prime min­is­ter, and Khaleda Zia, the wid­ow of a for­mer pres­i­dent, have alter­nat­ed in office. Their rival­ry has pro­duced an enor­mous amount of polit­i­cal vio­lence and numer­ous mil­i­tary coup attempts. Despite some eco­nom­ic progress, the pol­i­tics of Bangladesh are total­ly dysfunctional.

There is only one notable excep­tion to this rather trag­ic his­to­ry. That is Singapore, where the Lee fam­i­ly, father and son, have been in pow­er almost with­out inter­rup­tion since the coun­try achieved inde­pen­dence in the 1960s. Over that time they have man­aged to make Singapore a pros­per­ous city state and a major hub for world trade, with a per capi­ta GDP which rivals that of the United States. But Singapore would indeed seem to be the prover­bial excep­tion which proves the rule.

The dis­tin­guished British his­to­ri­an Lord Acton is report­ed to have said that “pow­er cor­rupts and absolute pow­er cor­rupts absolute­ly.” There would seem to be ample evi­dence that the longer an incum­bent holds on to office, the more tempt­ed he/she becomes to accru­ing pow­er and to exer­cis­ing it capri­cious­ly. That is why some demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties have moved to estab­lish term lim­its. Thus by adopt­ing the 22nd amend­ment to the Constitution in 1951, the United States decreed that no pres­i­dent could hold office for more than eight years. (The U.S. should think of doing the same for sen­a­tors and con­gress­men.) More recent­ly, France decreed that pres­i­den­tial terms should be reduced from sev­en to five years.

Unfortunately such con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­vi­sions work only in real democ­ra­cies. In dic­ta­tor­ships and qua­si-dic­ta­tor­ships office hold­ers rou­tine­ly pres­sure their par­lia­ments to grant them exemp­tions from the rules and remain in pow­er for decades to the detri­ment of their coun­tries and their peoples.

Louis A. Delvoie is a Fellow in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.

By Louis A. Delvoie

The curse of longevi­ty in office