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.
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