Presidential term limits are tricky things. In a democracy, term limits are generally seen as essential to maintaining a balance of power between the head of government and other branches of State. Their removal, very rightly, triggers alarm bells of possible authoritarianism and consolidation of power that gives birth to dictatorships.
When former President Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed the 19th Amendment through Parliament, it was the critical removal of presidential term limits that worried the public most and this was further cemented by the unceremonious and controversial removal of the Chief Justice.
The erosion on the different branches of power by bending them to the all powerful executive was palpable and dented Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials severely. It is therefore interesting to see the same situation again but this time developing in a different country.
International media was buzzing over the weekend of a move in China to remove presidential term limits, theoretically allowing President Xi Jingping, who also controls the Communist Party and the military, to remain in power indefinitely. The removal of term limits is to be made as part of larger changes to the country’s Constitution and will also include stronger anti-corruption measures that have made President Xi popular in his native country.
The government quickly stepped in on Sunday to control a social media backlash against the announcement reposting articles on its State-controlled media websites, disabling comments on social media and restricting searches for the phrase “term limits”. International media also indicated that China’s moves are being watched closely by the rest of the world who fear that a removal of term limits would also roll back four decades of reforms that started with an effort to control arbitrary actions by Mao Zedong and prevent another such leader from emerging.
The 200-strong Central Committee will on Monday begin holding its three-day “plenum” to approve the leadership line-up for Xi’s second term. The President will be formally re-elected during next week’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. The move to extend President Xi’s time in power draws comparisons with President Vladimir Putin of neighbouring Russia, who returned for a third term in 2012.
The peaceful transition of power as per the wishes of the population is perhaps the strongest advocate of democracy. So far the Chinese government has been quick to downplay any hint of concern and has insisted that the removal of term limits does not mean one leader will be allowed to govern in perpetuity, even though how they can be changed has not been clearly laid out. As party General Secretary President Xi also has huge clout on what the party decides to do.
For Sri Lanka, who has seen a significant increase in relations with China since the end of the war, these developments could have mixed results. The continuity of one set of policies may be easier to deal with than tackling changing ideologies but Sri Lanka may also struggle to maintain its non-aligned credentials by maintaining a balance on the diplomatic front. For now at least there is little Sri Lanka can do other than to watch and await developments.