With one eye on the next elections, it is tempting for an elected leader in a democracy to focus on the short term. Is it time to consider longer terms in office?
One possible advantage of dictatorships – if the dictator is competent, benign and enlightened – is that the leader has the time to flesh out a vision. Obviously, the downside is that dictators cannot easily be held to account for their failings, nor ousted when they are unpopular – as the efforts to oust President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt amply demonstrate.
In a democracy, leaders tend to be more accountable for their decisions and can be punished at the ballot box for underperforming. The downside, especially with the complex challenges we face in contemporary society, is that terms in office are so brief that the elected leader is often cowed from implementing necessary, but tough, policies.
Worse still, it strips politics of the visionary. It takes a very courageous leader to go down a path that will cause discomfort now and bear fruit that his or her successors – who probably criticised the measures – will reap. This can also work in reverse: neglect things now and let your successors clear up the mess.
Take the NHS and the railways. Conservative privatisation of one and neglect of the other had left them in a state of dysfunction. And yet the Tories have the audacity to blame Labour for these failing. As chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, despite all his failings, especially as prime minister, invested untold billions into resuscitating the creaking health system.
Whether or not that money was spent wisely, we won't now for many long years to come. And if the Labour investments turn out to have been wise, you can bet that a future Conservative government will take credit for making the NHS work more efficiently and argue for cuts in health spending – re-starting the same sad cycle.
America has one of the most extreme manifestations of this phenomenon, with its leaders seemingly on a semi-permanent election footing. Their four-year terms are punctuated with mid-term elections for Congress and more than a year of campaigning before the elections. That must count as a major distraction from the business of running the country, not to mention the immense resources dedicated to the various races.
This raises the question of why electoral terms are so short. In the cyber age, we may be tempted to attribute it to a collective attention deficiency disorder and how swiftly we tire of the familiar in modern society.
The origins of the practice probably lie in the early days of modern democracy. Then, there was a genuine fear that elected leaders who stayed too long in office might learn to covet power so much that they would consolidate their grip on it and become dictators.
But in today's mature democracies, is that still a credible fear? Or is it like the House of Lords – that archaic structure established to give the aristocracy their own parliament and not hand over all power to the common folk – a hangover from a bygone era?
With all the checks and balances in place limiting and distributing power between the different institutions of state, I am not sure we need to fear the possibility of creating dictators in modern western democracies.
Another objection to longer terms is that they limit our ability to get rid of incompetent leaders at the ballot box before they've inflicted major damage. But this can be addressed by having the electorate confirm their support midway through the longer term through a referendum or plebiscite.
So, for instance, if we extend the term to 10 years, after five, there would be a vote to see if the elected leader still enjoys a mandate to govern. If not, then general elections would be called immediately.
This raises a related question. In democracies where there is a limit on how many terms a leader can be re-elected: is this really necessary? If people are happy with a leader, should they not be allowed to keep her or him for as long as they like?
Of course, prolonging the duration a democratically elected leader can serve in office and removing limits on the number of terms where they exist are decisions that should not be taken lightly. And, if we were to go down that path, we would need to ensure that there are enough checks, balances and protective mechanisms to guarantee that the prime minister or president does not accumulate too much power to threaten the other state institutions.
But I believe the possible advantages of such a switch are enough for a public debate on the issue.
A final thought: going to war is one of the gravest decisions a country can take. I would like to see countries start passing legislation that would forbid their leaders from launching offensive or “pre-emptive” wars without the explicit mandate of a referendum. It might prevent a few unnecessary conflicts. Obviously, if a country is invaded, no such additional mandate would be necessary.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 20 January 2008.