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October 22, 2020

Defining term limits


October 22, 2020

The popular topics of debate in the Pakistani political sphere these days are loyalty to Pakistan, dynastic politics, and overstay in tenure. The latter two out of three seem to be the two dominant issues politicians and other ruling classes have with each other.

While politicians continually ask for the retirement of generals and judges, they never talk about retiring themselves. Often their legacy is the transfer of this power within their own families. Is it not that civilian supremacy will get established when civilians do not concentrate all power in their hands for their lifetimes?

Perhaps it is time to explore amending the constitution to include term limits for all elected officials to end this concentration of power. The only term limit provided in the constitution of Pakistan for an elected official is in Article 44(2): “Subject to the constitution, a person holding office as president shall be eligible for re-election to that office, but no person shall hold that office for more than two consecutive terms.”

Interpretation of the article leads to the realization that the current president could serve two consecutive terms and then come back for two more in a later period.

The president, prime minister, chief minister, and governor(s) should be allowed only two terms that can be consecutive or spaced out. This hypothetical suggestion, if implemented, would cut out narratives like ‘Nawaz Sharif has been the prime minister for three terms; what will he do differently now?’

Similarly, members of the national and provincial assemblies should be allowed only three terms that total up to fifteen years, either consecutive or spaced out, of serving as an elected official. Senators should be given an extension to eight years instead of six. However, upon retirement, they cannot be elected back to the senate or any other electable office.

Since our democratic governments have a turbulent past, and elected officials have a history of being ousted before their time is up, in the event of dissolution of government or an incomplete term of an elected official, the years the elected official has been in office will count.

For illustration, an MNA or MPA has served roughly two years. Due to political unrest or other reasons, the National and Provincial Assemblies face dissolution leading to fresh elections. The MNA or MPA does not win a seat in these new elections but wins in the next election cycle. The MNA or MPA would only be able to serve for thirteen years now as opposed to fifteen, marking the completion of his or her allowed three terms. When he or she completes his or her fifteen years and fresh elections are still a long way off, his or her seat would be eligible for a by-election.

Furthermore, the political life of a candidate will have a maximum cap of twenty years. A three-term MNA or MPA can only be president or prime minister for one term. A three-term MNA or MPA can only be chief minister or governor for one-term. Similarly, the president, prime minister, chief minister or governor can only serve a further two terms in the national and or provincial assemblies after serving their respective terms in office.

Any reasonable person would tell you that monopolies are bad for new entrants and crush competition. Political-monopolies by elected officials have the same effect. Term limits will seek to put an end to political-monopolies so that we see a new crop of lawmakers or elected officials.

Politics should not be considered a secure job. This kind of job security rids politicians of the ability to think critically or pass legislation that is beneficial and effective. They lose a sense of loyalty to people and develop one to the power their seat brings them. They invest their energies into protecting their next election instead of delivering on their campaign promises. If their election with one party fails, it is common practice to switch parties and continue contesting on the same seat under a different political agenda to win votes.

Term limits would also end the concept of seniority in elected offices. Often campaign promises are centered on the claim that one has spent so many years in the national or provincial assembly and so can get work done. Another drawback of the seniority system is that it enables incumbents to control newly elected officials by a fall-in-line or face-the-music approach. The approach leads to elected officials mirroring the power-grabbing practices of incumbents. The ultimate loss bearer is the general population left to be content with the bare minimum.

Term limits will seek to end the culture of influence that the wealthy or special interest groups (sugar mafia, flour mafia, etc) have over politicians. Long-serving politicians cater to the needs of the people who have made financial investments into their careers and not to those who voted them into office.

There will also be a reality check on elected officials when term limits are a part of the constitution, since elected officials would return to regular society and face the laws that they helped create will ensure they are warier of the legislation they help pass.

There is substantial evidence of this working in African countries like Kenya as written by Alexander Noyes in the Washington Post: “While serving as president of Kenya between 2008 and 2013, for instance, Mwai Kibaki knew he would be unable to run again. Kibaki’s intention to step down after his second term was up in 2013 made him more inclined to agree to changes that constrained executive powers – including a new constitution in 2010 – than if he was running for reelection. Peter Nyong’o, a top opposition politician, told me in 2015 that because Kibaki ‘was not going to stand in 2013, he didn’t have any interest in resisting’ reforms. Gichira Kibara, of Kibaki’s party, made a similar point, telling me: ‘You have a president who wants a good legacy because he’s not running in the next election’.”

Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, ‘I am democracy.’ His opposition, the newly formed PDM, has maintained that they will bring about real democracy. However, it seems as if these supposed democracy enthusiasts only want to help Pakistan when the retention of power or benefits associated with the elected office is involved. At this point, Pakistanis need altruism from their political leaders rather than selfish battles of power.

As the artist, Lil Wayne sings, “Today I went shopping and talk is still cheap.” These champions of democracy on both sides of the aisle (the present government and the PDM) are all talk. Both sides of the aisle have little to show in terms of reform. Just empty campaign promises of 'we will fix it when we are elected.'

The case for term limits was made by Benjamin Franklin about two centuries ago: “In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors. For the former to return among the latter does not degrade, but promote them.”

The writer is a Northern Iowa public administration graduate with a specialization in policy design and implementation.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ahsanjehangirkh