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The (In)stability of Presidential Term Limits in Africa and Latin America: Assessing the Impact of Tenure-Rule Reforms on the Political Regime

Many countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa (re-)introduced term limits during the third wave of democratization as a democratic safeguard against personal rule and power abuses. Since then, term limits have been contested by a plethora of reform attempts. In this project, we take a longitudinal view on these sometimes recurrent reforms and analyse their repercussions for institutionalization, democratization and autocratization.
DFG, 2017-2021


Elena Martínez Barahona
Markus Böckenförde
Julia Leininger
Timothy Power

Research Questions

Presidential term limits are a constitutional restriction on the number of terms that the directly elected head of state may serve in presidential or semi-presidential systems of government. Many countries of the world adopted or reinstated term-limit provisions during the third wave of democratisation that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrating the widespread belief that limiting presidential stays in power strengthens democracy. However, term-limit rules were later challenged, and in some cases they were even modified recurrently. In fact, the subsequent contestation of the term-limit rule became a worldwide phenomenon that often led to deep politico-institutional crises.

The project investigates the following research questions:
- What is the impact of presidential term limit reforms on the type and quality of political regimes in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa?
- How did the prevalence of term limit rules develop in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa since the third wave of democratisation?
- How were term limit reforms undertaken? What institutions and actors intervened in the process of term limit reforms? How transparent and democratic was the reform process?
- How does the quality of the reform process influence the political regime?

Contribution to International Research

The project undertakes the first systematic cross-regional analysis of the influence of term-limit reforms on the type and quality of the political regime. The two regions, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, comprise together the majority of presidential and semi-presidential regimes in the world.

A further innovation of the project is the examination of the variety of term-limit reforms, thus the prolongation of presidential terms as well as the shortening of presidential terms. Moreover, the paths of the reform processes are examined in detail to grasp how the character of the process influences the political regime

Research Design and Methods

The project applies a mixed-methods research design:
- construction of an original and comprehensive dataset of term limit reforms in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa
- sequence analysis and multivariate regressions
- comparative case studies

Preliminary Findings

Term limit reforms are commonly seen as a risk to democracy, since stable institutions are considered essential for democratic consolidation, while term-limit eliminations are associated with processes of autocratization. To empirically investigate reform paths across regions we apply the method of sequence analysis. We find that the stability of term-limit rules is more prevalent than expected, but that this stability sometimes masks institutional ineffectiveness in authoritarian regimes. Rule instability induced by frequent reforms can be part of a piecemeal path towards autocratization, but it can also reflect an open-ended tug of war between authoritarian tendencies and democratic resistance.

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