The siren song of power is hard to resist. And it is particularly hard to resist for those who have been in office for some period of time. It is executive presidents who are the most vulnerable to the lure of its seductive melody; prime ministerial systems are altogether more collegial in the way they function to afford quite the same ‘high.’ In order that an incumbent does not become too comfortable in the post and is diverted into misusing power most Western democracies with executive presidencies set term limits, the United States being a prime example. Franklin D Roosevelt was the only American President to serve more than two terms; he was voted in on four occasions, although he was in office for less than three months following his fourth victory at the polls before dying of a cerebral haemorrhage. Thereafter, in 1951, the twenty-second Amendment to the US Constitution limited American presidents to two terms.
After the Latin republics’ experience with caudillos, term limits were written in to most of the South American constitutions as well. It is something, however, which has not sat well with some of the current generation of presidents. Those most tempted by the narcotic of continued office tend to be either to the left or the right of democratic. The best known example is that of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who after losing a referendum on constitutional reform which included a provision about abolishing the two-term restriction, went back to the people with a reformulated proposal which they then approved. His left-wing compadres in the hemisphere have moved in the same direction, and on the other side of the political divide, so has President Uribe of Colombia.
It is no accident that the executive heads of state who have gone for this particular constitutional amendment tend to be populists who perceive themselves as the key agents in altering the pattern of history. This is exemplified most clearly in the case of the Venezuelan head of state, who views himself as indispensable to the promulgation of his ‘bolivarian revolution.’ Less flamboyant presidents in more stable democracies such as Brazil and Chile, place more emphasis on institutions, rather than personalities to propel their nations forward. And in fact, that is indeed the secret of the success of the well established democracies. Modern nations cannot make significant progress without a solid institutional framework with diffuse autonomous centres of power and an effective arrangement of checks and balances. At least some of Guyana’s problems (although by no means all) derive from the fact that the tradition of the paramount leader has dominated political life since long before independence.
With the qualified exception of President Hoyte – he came to office courtesy of a rigged election – all our presidents have failed to fully grasp the damage that undermining the independence of such institutions causes. As it is, we are paying a heavy price for the misperception on the part of our leaders of how societies develop. The point is, the system is more important than the man (or woman), which is not to say that leaders are not important, or that at special times of crisis they assume a greater importance than would otherwise be the case; it is just to say that in peacetime facilitating becomes their major role as opposed to handing down orders. Karl Popper’s oft-quoted observation is worth repeating yet again, namely, that institutions are like fortresses; they have to be well built and well manned.
And now the term limits issue is being tested in the Co-operative Republic – or so it seems. Last week a group calling itself by the ponderous name, Guyanese Coalition For Jagdeo Third Term, distributed flyers and buttons promoting the notion. It lent credence to the AFC’s earlier claims that this was the intention, although the President himself has denied that he is seeking another term, most recently at a dinner with the private sector. The PPP itself – or at least its General Secretary – has also deemed the idea nonsense, but of course the party includes senior members like Mr Ramotar who harbour presidential ambitions of their own.
Mr Jagdeo was out of the country at the time, and one must presume the timing was intentional. However, it is difficult to conceive of any group spending money to have buttons made, etc, promoting a candidate unless they had at least some measure of tacit approval from the subject of their campaign, otherwise it would be a complete waste of funds and an utterly futile exercise. Perhaps they are just testing the waters, and also attempting to generate sufficient interest in the matter so that eventually President Jagdeo would be allowed to do his ‘back by popular demand’ act.
Assuming for the moment that some such scenario is the case, the practical impediments remain what they always were: the constitution would have to be changed which would mean either a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, or going to the electorate in a referendum. The first route would require the co-operation of the PNC – and presumably some carrot would have to be offered to Mr Corbin. If he accepted, he would lose what little support he retains among the traditional PNC constituency, and it is conceivable he might not even be able to carry all his parliamentarians with him in the house. As things stand, however, the PNCR in a press statement on Thursday dismissed the third term campaign as a diversion, and again said it was opposed to any such move.
But then there is the matter of the PPP itself. Could Mr Jagdeo deliver enough MPs from his own party for a vote of that kind? One must presume there would be powerful forces working against him. It may be, therefore, that a referendum would be seen as the preferred way to go, which was why on a previous occasion when the subject raised its head, the rumour was that a referendum would be tagged onto a local government election. The presidency, of course, is a greater source of patronage nowadays than Freedom House, and it is a moot point as to whether those who have some responsibility for the party machinery would be able to exert more influence on the rank and file than the President himself, who in spite of everything is still popular in the rural areas.
At the very least, he is better known to PPP supporters than any other senior party member, and exactly who could call in the most votes, therefore, is a matter of speculation for outsiders.
Theoretically, he could even in a referendum seek an accommodation with the PNC should they change their minds on the issue; the problem is Mr Corbin could not deliver any significant quantity of ‘yes’ votes from the traditional supporters of the main opposition; as popular as Mr Jagdeo might be in some Indian rural areas, the opposite is the case in African areas.
Referendum aside, Mr Jagdeo would still have to persuade the executive and central committees of his own party to accept him as their presidential candidate – although perhaps this would be agreed to in principle before a referendum was held. Either way, it may be that those engaged in the present promotion believe that he can swing the executive committee, and that if he won a referendum too the party would have no option but to endorse him.
Whether there is any real plot afoot, time will soon tell. What can be said is that any extension of the presidential term limit would be a fundamentally undemocratic move, and would bind us once again to the paramount leader principle. It would also be to subvert the constitution which all parties worked so hard to reform, placing one man in terms of importance above not just the country’s institutions, but even the framework of the state.
If President Jagdeo is really serious about not seeking a third term, he should quickly make it clear publicly to those promoting this proposal in his name that he is not in favour of abolishing term limits, and would not cooperate in any moves to achieve a constitutional amendment in this regard. If he doesn’t do this people will suspect him of ulterior motives.