Malaysiakini News

Democracy means term limits for elected officials

Kua Kia Soong  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | As the 14th Malaysian general election looms, it is almost comical to see ageing politicians still trying to justify their “right” to stand for elections even while they clamour for “change” in the political order.

They cite political conspiracies by their political opponents to justify hogging their electoral seats.

Some have been in Parliament since the era of the Tunku - half a century ago. During that time, Umno (hardly the paragon of democracy) has changed party leaders five times.

It is no coincidence that these long-term political leaders exert control over their respective political parties to ensure all prospective party candidates is beholden to them.

They argue that they are indispensable and even justify their right to selectively hold both federal as well as state seats.

The late Karpal Singh was a stern opponent of this grabby practice by established party leaders of hogging federal as well as state seats. His famous line when a former DAP stalwart left the party was, “No one is indispensable.”

That surely applies to everyone in the world. Or are some people exempt from this mortal truism?

Why are term limits vital for democracy?

Clearly, many Malaysians still do not appreciate the meaning of democracy. During the historic Paris Commune of 1871, elected officials were subject to immediate recall.

In ancient Greece more than 2000 years ago, many offices were term limited so as to limit the power of individuals, a practice that was seen as vital for the greater good of society.

Even in other democratic countries, we see responsible and honourable politicians resign at the slightest failure of judgment on their part or when their term has reached a convenient point for some other younger leader to take over the party.

Many modern republics employ term limits for their highest offices. The United States place a limit of two terms on its presidency while some state governors and state legislators also have term limits.

The Russian Federation likewise limits the head of state to two terms; any further terms cannot be consecutive.

The democratic justification for this term limit is simply that elected officials can over time obtain too much power or authority and thus makes them less representative of all the citizens.

The democratic principle behind term limit is that no one person should have too much power nor for too long. The concept of term limits minimises the amount of power any one person can gain over a period of time.

Preventing chances of corruption

As we have seen only recently, even within the two-term service, corporate interests including those in property and finance can provide inducements to the incumbent especially when they have developed familiar relations over time.

There is clearly a correlation between the length of time a politician serves and the degree to which he/she has opportunities to engage in corruption.

The principle of term limits has always been applied to the civil service which is why civil servants and police personnel are transferred every so often to prevent the acquisition of power and inducements to corruption in any one post.

Term limits would make this less likely since there is less time that a politician can be influenced by the power of the office that they hold.

Corporate interests cannot become as entrenched when term limits are in place. With term limitations, corporate influence still happens, but not to the extent that it can when such interests develop unhealthy relationships with career politicians who are in office for a long time...

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