Around the world, many presidents have term limits. For example, a United States president cannot be elected more than two times (normally this means at most eight years of service). On the other hand, it seems prime ministers and their cabinets usually don't have term limits, even if it's them that are in power in many countries, in particular in constitutional monarchies that are common in northern Europe.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of term limits? Wouldn't it be more democratic if people could vote for whom they want? And all those countries without term limits — Netherlands, Sweden, Norway... — what negative consequences do they experience? Are term limits really necessary?


3 Answers 3


While by no means an exclusive list, the pros and cons of term limits are:


  • In some countries/locales, it is all but impossible to get rid of an incumbent politician, especially in parliament.

    This is extra problematic in US, where all that seems to be required to be re-elected is to have (1) a (frequently gerrymandered) district with 55%-65% in favor of your party; (2) bring home some pork (e.g. non-essential spending that you lobbied for the government to spend in your district); and (3) Not be "caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy" (e.g. not to commit major political suicide, like sending your naked private parts to random women while married).

    In other words, no matter how poor a politician is, especially for the country as a whole, in USA it's rather easy for him/her to get re-elected. In USA, re-election rate is 80-90%, ALWAYS (except for Senate in late 70s). (source: http://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php ) .

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    Now, contrast that chart with Congressional approval rating: Low of 10% in 2012; average well below 40%.

    enter image description here

    Everyone hates Congress, but keeps re-electing their own congresscritter.

  • Another proposed benefit (I'm not aware of how true it is) is that theoretically, a "lame-duck" politician (e.g. one NOT running for re-election) will be ready to make wiser decisions more beneficial to the whole country in a long term, since he won't care about making unpopular choices costing them an election.

  • And, closely related, a guy NOT running for re-election will spend the time actually, y'know, governing. As opposed to spending 50%+ of his term (of 2 year term) running for re-election, which is these days pretty much a full time job.

  • Term limits can, theoretically, diminish influence of lobbyists, since the lobbyists would have to re-establish relations with both fresh politicians AND their staffs, especially on senior level.

  • Philosophically, having no term limits creates, in essence a permanent "governing" politician class, which is fully contrary to the way USA was set up (it's a bit less of a problem for Europeans who are used to their aristocracy and Houses of Lords :)

    Remember that George Washington specifically considered Cincinnatus to be a role model for a politician.

    Contrast that with the infamous "this is a Kennedy's seat" quip made in 2012 Congressional elections in Massachusetts.


  • A genuinely great politician, even if he is so beloved that his popularity is through the roof and a large chunk of electorate would vote for them, can not stay in office. Frequently, replaced by a complete doofus (my personal example would be NYC Mayor Giuliani, replaced with "No Big Coke for you" Nanny Bloomberg. YMMV).

  • If one views politics as the art of compromise and dealing, purely theoretically having "familiar old faces" around (aka "the devil you know") should help foster more compromise, since you generally have less surprises and know where many other people stand and what their positions and style are.

  • 1
    Hm, this makes me think: maybe there is a significant difference depending on whether it's a district-based system or a proportional system.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 21:36
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    That first graph is pretty depressing, but is a great argument for outlawing gerrymandering.
    – user171
    Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 20:30
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    @Keen - i'm uncertain how much of a factor gerrymandering is, frankly. It certainly contributes, but how much? Well, if only we had a site for asking political questions...
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 21:43
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    @Keen - politics.stackexchange.com/questions/412/…
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 22:18
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    The evidence is in the other direction in regards to term limits and the influence of lobbyists. As they know far more about the process than the new legislators, they can have an undue influence. I watched this live as a legislator was presenting his bill in a committee hearing and couldn't answer questions and passed the mic to the lobbyist who wrote it! onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/… Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 16:52

In theory, the main argument against term limits is that elected officials should serve for as long as they have the confidence of the people.

However, and strictly from my personal observations from Greece, lacking term limits1 often leads to elected officials serving for way longer that they should. The simple truth of the matter is that re-election is a lot easier than getting elected for the first time, even if we only consider that incumbents have a much larger degree of familiarity with voters. The high levels of corruption in the country don't help either, if incumbents generally have it easier (as DVK's answer demonstrates), imagine how much easier it is for corrupt incumbents to hold on to their offices ad nauseam.

Parliamentary term limits would solve that problem, without going into details of the following politicians' activities, the length of their presence in parliament alone is not really what I'd call a sign of a healthy democracy:

I'm cheating a bit, pointing to the leaders of the (traditionally) more popular parties, but their very long careers in politics are not unusual in Greece. And although long careers in politics might not be unusual in general, almost 20 years straight in parliament doesn't smell right.

I'm sure people will be more than eager to point out that length of parliamentary presence is not really something we should be judging PMs on, and that there are various ways to interpret long runs in the parliament in a positive way. And I'm sure there are, but I'm still strongly in favour of term limits, especially in a country with demonstrably high levels of corruption.

1 The President of the Hellenic Republic is limited to two five year terms, but the office holds little, if any, real power.

  • 24 years? That's nothing, mate.
    – user97
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 23:01
  • @ZeroPiraeus Heh, I'm sure I'll find longer runs in the Greek parliament as well (I limited my examples on party leaders on purpose). That said, Samaras' run might end up being only 5 years short of Tapsell's, if he continues being an MP until he's 82.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 23:05
  • <comments removed> Please keep comments focused on improving the post and try not to turn this into your personal chatroom. Actually, chatrooms are pretty good for that. Thanks. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 15:42
  • @YannisRizos: Cherry picking cases is quite easy; general trends are harder to prove. For example, in the United States, while Some in the congress do serve for 20 years or more, the vast majority have been in Their current office less than 10 years and ~2/3 have been in Their current office less than 15 years. Cases like the ones You describe, at least in the U.S., tend to be statistical outliers which, given the nature of statistics, is to be expected.
    – xuinkrbin.
    Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 14:43

The strongest argument in favor of term limits I have heard is "the elimination of career Politicians"; however, in the U.S. at least, this argument ignores the fact the vast majority of Members of the congress have been serving in Their current office less than 10 years The argument also, in My experience, seems to be used to remove Senators and Representatives other than the Those of the One deploying the argument. Consequently, the argument sounds, to Me, more like an objection to the fact other Voters prefer certain Members of congress. However, I digress.

The best arguments against term limits I have heard are (1) nations with term limits tend to go to war more often than those without and (2) when term limits are implemented, the institutionalized memory of political decision making is immediately altered to strengthen the influence of lobbying groups, instead of the Individual Voters. A continuous "crop" of new Legislators means They have to turn to the People and organizations from before They arrive: the "special interest groups" and Lobbyists.

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