So Joseph Muscat proposes term limits for prime ministers and MPs, and this newspaper’s online poll finds 75 per cent agree. If anything, the Prime Minister was too lax. He said four terms for MPs but around 70 per cent of respondents favour no more than two.
The proposal is attractive at first glance. It’s a way to disrupt the accumulation of power. What about the second glance? Alas, it’s also a way to disrupt accumulation of experience in jobs that really need it.
There are two radical consequences of a two-term limit for MPs. New party leaders will have to be chosen from those just elected to Parliament. Why elect a leader in his second term if he can’t contest the next general election?
Moreover, if a first-term leader loses the general election, he’ll have to make way quickly for a successor because he himself cannot contest another election. Best to make way so another team has time to establish its credentials. We’ll end up with party leaders who serve for less than five years.
It’s a recipe for leadership by neophytes. Under our rules, it will affect government across the board since ministers must be MPs. What a way to conduct diplomacy, protect the country, run the economy and ensure stewardship for our education and health systems.
It gets worse. If ministers are so transient, power will accumulate in the civil, foreign, health and security services, which are not directly accountable to voters. Ministers will be busy learning the ropes. Afterwards, they will be strongly tempted to focus on short-term legacies, not least to create a post-politics niche for themselves.
Oh, and if you decide that ministers can be drawn from outside Parliament, what’s to stop them from accumulating power, especially if new prime ministers will need to tap experience?
A four-term limit comes with similar perverse effects. Applying it retroactively to post-Independence politics, the results are ambiguous at best. Alfred Sant would have had to step down in 2003, Dom Mintoff in 1981, Eddie Fenech Adami in 1992 (or even 1987, if you include his half-term 1968-71). Guido de Marco and Ugo Mifsud Bonnici would never have become ministers, having had to step down in 1987.
What’s so broken about the system that makes Muscat call for a constitutional measure that would have such drastic effects? He says he’s tired of politicians who cling to their seats.
You’d think Parliament is a lumber-room of old-timers. Yet over half of both government MPs and Opposition MPs are serving their first or second terms.
There are around half a dozen each serving in their third and fourth terms. There are only 15 MPs, fewer than a fourth, who have served more than four terms: five for the Nationalist Party, 10 for Labour.
That’s a nicely balanced Parliament (in gender and other terms, of course, it’s not). To go by his actions, Muscat agrees. Nine of the 10 Labour MPs who have served more than four terms are either ministers or parliamentary secretaries.
When Muscat says he’s tired of politicians clinging to their seats, who does he have in mind? We should be told. Is it so dire to have to deal with Joe Mizzi (in his eighth term), Michael Farrugia and Evarist Bartolo (seventh), and Chris Cardona, Helena Dalli, José Herrera and Chris Agius (sixth)? All he has to do is demote them. The electorate will pick up the signal and plunge the knife in 2022.
What’s so broken about the system that makes Joseph Muscat call for a constitutional measure that would have such drastic effects?
Muscat’s actions are more reasonable than his words. Experienced politicians usually bring depth to the Cabinet. Moreover, the composition of Parliament shows a dynamic turnover. Over 60 per cent of MPs have not begun their fourth term yet. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Then there’s the proposal to limit prime ministers to two terms. Once more, it’s unclear why it’s needed. Out of the seven post-Independence prime ministers, only Mintoff served more than two consecutive terms. But his third (part) term (1981-84) was served despite being rejected by 51 per cent of the electorate, a problem with the electoral law since addressed.
Fenech Adami, of course, served two consecutive terms (1987-96) and then, after a 22-month hiatus, another plus one year of a fourth (1998-2004). But those were special circumstances. He was preparing to step down in 1997 when the prospect of a snap election appeared.
He stayed on, first, because of that general election and, after that, because of the approaching EU referendum. In the face of Labour opposition to EU membership, Fenech Adami was deemed to be the most credible and viable leader who could win the referendum. I’d like to know who, today, wants to argue that Fenech Adami serving more than two terms went against the interests of the country.
On the contrary. Here is a case where not having legislation provided the flexibility needed in exceptional situations.
Such flexibility is essential. It is a characteristic of democracies to pass through periodic crises that call for continued leadership. Is Germany less of a democracy because of Angela Merkel’s longevity? Or has she (on the whole) been a stabilising influence, not least on Europe?
She has been compelled to draw an end to her career without any need for term limits. When her long-serving predecessor, Helmut Kohl, ignored the signals, his party got a drubbing in an election that his political party’s likely successor could have won.
So, in exceptional circumstances, term limits remove necessary flexibility. In normal circumstances? They weaken a political leader.
Putting aside ceremonial heads of State, in the EU and north America, only the US and France impose term limits, and that in a system where the President is effectively an elected monarch. In both cases, the effect is to produce a lame-duck President in the last two years – someone who reigns rather than governs. The fact that he’ll soon be gone weakens his authority.
The same has happened when the limit was self-imposed. After Tony Blair announced the 2005 general election would be his last, the jostling for succession probably brought forward his resignation.
There’s a reason why other democracies don’t have term limits, for either the legislature or the premiership. A dynamic turnover of politicians is a desirable social norm but makes for bad law. It’s too prescriptive, too inflexible. It tries to fix a system that ain’t broke and ends up cracking it.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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