Why Chavez should go gracefully

February 17, 2009 at 11:27 am | Posted in International | 2 Comments

There’s not much to like about term limits . Originally intended to protect democracy from abuse and guard against dictatorships, the rule that a state’s citizens can’t re-elect an incumbent only serves to cheapen the very thing it’s meant to protect. It reflects a deep insecurity over the strength of democratic institutions and a paranoia that without strict limits, the public will eventually elect a despot who does away with democracy altogether.

The term limit embeds two very negative consequences in a political system, through the way it diminishes both the rewards for success and penalties for failure. It is (or should be) the public who pass the ultimate judgement on elected officials, and a politician can only retain power by demonstrating why they deserve their vote. The best way of achieving that is by fulfilling campaign promises and practicing good governance, but since a re-elected President no longer has any elections to fight, they can spend the rest of their term free from the powerful accountability of the ballot box.

For example, most of us would agree that George W. Bush left office as a failure, but if he’d had the option of campaigning for a third term, he might well have been a more responsible and responsive President in his second term, rather than the abject bum who seemed to have given up by 2006. Likewise, I suspect that both America and the rest of the world would’ve been much better off had President Clinton been allowed to persue a third term of his own.

But whilst the decision by 54% of Venezuelans to do away with this glass ceiling is the right one, it’s still caused a creeping unease that its President, Hugo Chavez, is using it as a means to achieve that which term limits are meant to prevent; ruling the country for life, like his old friend and mentor, Fidel Castro. We should remember that Venezuelans already rejected this idea less than two years ago, and you’re hardly abiding by the will of the people if you return with the same question – worded a little differently – every 14 months, in hope of a different answer.

Whilst I can find no public statement that Chavez intends to rule for life, history tells us that those who do harbour that dark desire will eventually consider ever more desperate – and undemocratic – measures to get their wish. If that happens and each passing year brings greater autocracy, then all the good he will have done in his time as President (for he has done some good), will be undone.

If Chavez truly wishes to leave Venezuelans with a democratic socialist inheritance that people in his own country and beyond would want to aspire to and emulate, he should set the precedent that reform shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of one strongman leader, that governments require frequent renewal to govern well and that the history of autocracy and instability which has so stifled Latin America belongs buried in the last century.

So when 2012 comes around and Chavez will have spent 13 years as President, he should decline the option of running for another term, throw his arms around someone who might continue his legacy and retire as a man who, for all his many, many flaws, established stability, a democratic transfer of power, and – most importantly – a better deal for impoverished Venezuelans. Anything less will ruin his reputation, his political beliefs, and probably his country.

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2 Comments »

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  1. I agree with your final point. Politically, it would be very smart for him to simply retire at the end of his second term and to promote a like-minded politician. But let’s not forget that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    I disagree that that had Bill Clinton won a third term that world would be a better place. In fact Bill Clinton himself may have invaded Iraq. Let’s not forget that he promoted and signed the Iraq liberation act of 1998 – it called for a regime change in Iraq. How explicit can on be? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Liberation_Act

    One of the points used by the Clinton/Gore campaign to attack the Bush/Quayle incumbency was the fact that they chose not to march all the way into Baghdad during the Persian Gulf war. Mr. Nobel Prize winner sounds like a war monger here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDitSbkQKIs

  2. Thanks for the comment. It’s difficult for either of us to say for certain what would’ve happened under a Clinton third term, but your point that the march to Baghdad predates the George W. Bush Presidency is certainly well-taken. Personally, I’ve always doubted that Clinton had the cojones for ground invasions; he procrastinated massively over Rwanda and took a lot of persuading to intervene in the Balkans. He always struck me as someone who was far happier to limit his military engagements to bombing raids rather than committing massive amounts of US troops to Iraq. But I might be wrong, and certainly can’t prove that I’m right!


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