Prime Ministers and Presidents

Almost all countries require their political leaders to relinquish power before they are ready to. Different political systems have different exit requirements. Tony Blair, who stepped down yesterday after ten years as British prime minister, was under no constitutional obligation to leave. Formally, a British prime minister exercises power on behalf of the Queen, who has no fixed term. Nor does her prime minister. Within any period of five years he can call a general election whenever it suits him (on the Queen’s behalf, of course.) If he keeps on winning these elections and (more importantly) his party thinks he can go on doing so, he can stay in power indefinitely. It was because the Labour Party decided that Blair could not win it another election that he was forced to quit.

The relaxed British rules are the product of an archaic, unwritten constitution. Written constitutions give more precise exit instructions. In most parliamentary systems, chief executives (prime ministers) have no discretion in the timing of elections: they can serve as many terms as the voters and their parties allow them to, but each period of government is fixed. In presidential systems, the chief executive is usually limited to two successive fixed terms (generally four or five years each.) He can be removed only by impeachment or disablement. In the United States a two-term limit was imposed by constitutional amendment after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president four times in a row. (Only death prevented him completing his fourth term.) Nor, unlike in the Russian constitution, can an American president serve two terms, take a rest for a few years, and then come back for a third term.

However, all systems for limiting political tenure have problems. The most obvious is that the age of presidents and prime ministers is steadily getting younger even as their life expectancy increases. In the old days they tended to come to power in late middle age and die soon after leaving office, or even in office. Now, as with Clinton and Blair, their political life is over by the time they are fifty. So what are they going to do for the next twenty or thirty years? Their retirement may be eased by all kinds of artificial jobs (Blair is apparently going to be a special envoy in the Middle East), but there is a limit to the number of jobs that can be created for young ex-leaders. After that, there are only self-justifying memoirs and company boards.

The second problem is connected with the first. Most politicians mature with age and experience. They are just about ready for power when they are unceremoniously booted out. By this time they may well be much better at the job than their successors. Why should a president who is popular and good at his job be forced to quit at the height of his powers?

So there is an inevitable temptation to find an excuse to stay on. This is particularly so in immature democracies, where every succession is a threat to existing power holders.

Nevertheless, the temptation should always be resisted. Apart from the well-known problem of hubris which affects any long-serving leader, there is the need to preserve the constitution. The president is the ultimate guardian of the constitution. The greatest service any president can render his country is to ensure that the constitution is upheld. It is the constitution, not the individual, which ensures the long-run stability of a country and its political life.

As for the problem of premature retirement, I have a simple solution. No one should be allowed to be prime minister or president before the age of fifty. Now that would be a constitutional amendment worth having!