Opinion: To limit or not to limit?

By Nathan Baumgartner

Opinion Contributor

Term limits have been viewed differently across different sovereign states. Many Western states, largely located in Western Europe, do not have them for certain positions, like the Chancellorship in West Germany. Others, like the United States, have enacted them for positions roughly equivalent in terms of power: The President of the United States can only serve in that capacity for two terms. A vice president can only serve as president for up to ten years, not being able to serve more than half of the last president’s term, according to the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. This came as backlash to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s unprecedented over three terms as President of the United States. People did not want so much power to potentially be concentrated in one person over time.

The perception of term limits on rulers of quasi-democratic or undemocratic states is overwhelmingly negative. They are viewed, in the context of liberal democratic tradition, as an unnecessary consolidation of power, effectively removing a system of “checks and balances.” In the People’s Republic of China, current President Xi Jinping has expressed wishes to abolish term limits for the Chinese presidency. Currently, no one can serve as president of the People’s Republic of China for more than 10 years. But Jinping wants to change that. Why? As many within the Communist Party of China argue, that’s exactly what the Chinese people want. Thus, removing term limits are seen as an official mechanism through which the Communist party reflects the wants and needs of the Chinese.

The fact that no high-ranking Communist Party official has acknowledged poll-taking beyond 2.600 Chinese citizens – all of which are involved in the Communist Party in some way, shape or form proves problematic from the start. For a population of over 1,4 billion people, this reflects only approximately 0,0001% of the Chinese population. The disapproving stance taken by many Chinese intellectuals prove even more problematic. Numerous fears of reverting back to a governance style not unlike former Premier Mao Zedong have taken hold of various intellectual circles throughout China. These fears are not unfounded, as Zedong took similar paths in his rise to power, largely unchecked by both fellow Party officials and the Chinese public, ending in a “Cultural Revolution” which ended in social and political upheaval for many deemed enemies of the state and did not cease until Zedong’s death in 1969.

Term limits in a majority of liberal democratic states are unnecessary. Take Germany as an example. Angela Merkel has served as Chancellor of Germany since 2005, having served as leader of her center-right Christian Democratic Party since 2000. It is now 2018 and, despite lower electoral results in the federal elections held in 2017, her party has retained a plurality of votes and seats in the German parliament. No rules for term limits exist, but this also largely has to do with the fact that the German parliament is much more responsive to the demands of the people: in the event a Chancellor becomes too unpopular, then votes of confidence can be held, and if these do not work out in the favor of the Chancellor, then snap elections can be held.

Because our representative democracy does not work in the same way as Germany’s, I argue that term limits are necessary in positions of power like the President of the United States, as well as the position of President of the People’s Republic of China. As long as the actual electoral base is restricted to such a degree like it currently is with the Electoral College in the United States, and political expression is ultimately limited to the Communist Party in the case of the People’s Republic of China, term limits are necessary to counteract limitations posed by their respective systems. The risk that electors could go against the wishes of the electorate which they theoretically represent exists at any time there is a presidential election, in the case of the United States: currently, in twenty-one states, including New York, it is perfectly legal to go against casting an electoral vote against the popular vote of the respective state. In the case of Xi Jinping, the only true criticism he must face are fellow Communist Party cadres, as that is the real source of political power in China. As long as he yields significant influence amongst his cadres, and his party, he will remain in his position, seemingly arbitrary term limits aside.

Doing so, consequently, will not be difficult. Unethical, for sure, but not difficult.

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