I read this question on why countries impose term limits on leaders, but it seems that the answer is not what I wanted.

The reason is basically "to prevent a dictatorship." The only issue is, the public would still be voting every so often on the new president, so he/she could only abuse their power for the same amount of time an ordinary one could. Also, if a leader were to be an exceptionally good president/prime minister, it doesn't make much sense to keep them from being reelected.

I am aware that there was a custom in the US far before an actual constitutional reason keeping presidents from running for president more than twice, but this seems odd, too. There's not much of a reason for it.

One reason one could think of is to let new people be elected, if one person has been consistently reelected for the past few terms. But if they have, they are probably good enough at their job to deserve it.

I know there are several similar questions (like the one linked above), but I do not believe this to be a duplicate. It is instead expanding on a certain point made in it, which seems unaddressed in responses to comments and seems worthy of a separate question.

4 Answers 4


As an empirical fact, the very same person is much more likely to win an election if that person in an incumbent than if that person is not and there is an open race, or a candidate is challenging an incumbent.

This is because, among other things, an incumbent has better name recognition, challenges to an incumbent from a member of the same political party are strongly disfavored (even though that party is likely to be the one preferred by most voters in that politician's district), an incumbent doesn't need to spend time engaged in non-political work for economic self-support, and an incumbent can't manipulate the levers of government to make the incumbent appear desirable in superficial ways that don't reflect the bigger issues that really matter in governing a political unit.

Term limits periodically wipe out incumbency advantages so that the vote of the people reflects an unbiased view of their wishes prospectively rather than being influenced by the mere fact that someone has previously held the same post.

This keeps elected officials in line with the wishes of the people, and also prevents incumbency advantages (like gerrymandered districts that put strong opponents in the same district while leaving incumbents in districts that lack strong challengers) from further accumulating over time, which may create an environment akin to a dominant party system, where there is a legal opposition but it has no realistic prospects of winning important political prizes in the near term.

If an elected official is very hard to remove despite the formal electoral process due to incumbency advantages, at some point the elected official can effectively ignore the public and rule as he or she sees fit at whim, must like a dictator. This isn't an absolute freedom and an extreme act could get an opposition figure elected (if those in charge don't change the election laws to prevent that), but even a dictator still needs to maintain a basis of support and legitimacy to rule.

There are many examples in newer democracies of Presidents or other leaders improperly manipulating, greatly postponing or even entirely dispensing with elections creating a one party state or a publicly acknowledge dictatorship. The threat is not hypothetical.

Regular shifts in who holds political office through an electoral process (which may include term limits) is necessary, as an empirical matter, for a democratic electoral system to be healthy and functional.

As one empirical example, jurisdictions with term limits tend to have more women, and generally more diverse groups of elected officials and the lagging indicator influences of incumbency are overcome.

  • 7
    And don't forget that the longer someone is in power, the more time and incentive they have to rig the system to make it favour themselves and their chosen (political) heirs. Thus we have for example McCain being replaced by his own daughter without elections. And we see the same elsewhere, both also for non-political appointees (town I lived in had the head of building permits replaced by his own son, after tweaking the hiring rules to mean he could hire anyone without going through the official open application process for example).
    – jwenting
    Apr 9, 2019 at 4:54
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    @jwenting In what role was McCain replaced by his daughter?
    – Deolater
    Apr 9, 2019 at 13:27
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    It's also useful to remember that often people don't vote, or don't vote according to their sincere preference. They might also vote under an electoral system that does not elect the most preferred candidate. And certainly there are people who are simply afraid of change: Kekkonen was the president of Finland for 25 years and I have heard people explicitly state that since they'd lived their whole lives or most of their lives under his presidency they could not imagine electing another president. (He eventually stepped down due to illness and a two successive term limit was later imposed) Apr 9, 2019 at 13:59
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    (It's also crucial to note the effect Kekkonen's long presidency had had: He won his fourth re-election with a massive 86% of the vote compared to 8% for the runner-up, essentially without campaigning, up from about 66% in the previous two elections, and only barely over 50% in his first. This is, in my opinion, an example of incumbent bias.) Apr 9, 2019 at 14:19

Perhaps rather than "dictator", it should be prevention of "monarchy".

There is an incumbent effect. An incumbent President can act to improve their popularity with the voters. Challengers can only talk to criticise, but since challengers are not in the Presidency they can't do anything. This gives the incumbent an advantage.

We see in some countries where a President can remain for longer (and especially those in which the President acts more directly to weaken the opposition) a situation developing in which there are no credible challengers. The President in this situation may not be a dictator, but is re-elected by a landslide every 4 years, because there is nobody else who can oppose him.

The fear of the founding fathers was that a President would use his position to remain in power for the rest of his life, and then use his influence to see that his son became the next president (creating a de-facto monarchy)

The drafters of the amendment to the constitution felt that FDR had gained too much power, over his 3½ terms, he had been able to pick nearly all the members of the supreme court and massively increased federal budgets in the "new deal". They didn't want another President to stay in power for that long.

  • Which definition of monarchy is used here?
    – user28434
    Apr 9, 2019 at 13:07
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    A system of government in which the head of state is permanent and inherited.
    – James K
    Apr 9, 2019 at 13:55
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    But not all monarchies are hereditary(a lot of them are/were elective), or permanent(like in modern Malaysia). I think you should specify permanence and inheritance directly, without relying on definition of monarchy.
    – user28434
    Apr 9, 2019 at 14:04

The most precarious time for any state is usually the period of succession - the transfer of power from one leader to another. When most people are convinced (whether pleased or resigned) that someone is the rightful, or at least inevitable, ruler, much potential civil strife and uncertainty is simply not realized.

In a healthy democratic state, where new leaders are periodically elected, the fealty of the people is arguably to the state itself, the country and institutions, rather than to a particular leader. Thus a relatively orderly transfer of power can happen - because fealty is to the state and not to a charismatic individual. It's not a new government - just a new guy administering the same government. In a hereditary monarchy, as an alternative example, the fealty of the people is owed to a family, and succession is smoothed by a clear line of succession. There's no period of doubt; "The King is dead, long live the King."

Problems arise in cases where people who all agreed to treat the former government as legitimate may suddenly cease to agree. This is one of the reasons that new empires throughout history often fell apart as soon as the founder died: The whole reason that the country was bound together was that conqueror, not some institution beyond and above that conqueror.

The problem with having the same president for too long is that it becomes unclear to more and more people whether fealty is owed to the president himself, or to the government as an institution. And if there is sufficient disagreement among the populace regarding where fealty is owed, to a person, a party, or the institutions of government, it will make succession much more perilous for the country. Observe Venezuela under and after Hugo Chavez, who served "for life", and who tore up and reshaped the institutions of his country.

That is, of course, setting aside the additional problem of an individual who is in power too long being able to gather enough military, police, and bureaucratic influence to seize dictatorial prerogative, overruling an election result he doesn't like - or faking the results.

  • Welcome to Politics.SE, please try to support your answer with references where possible.
    – JJJ
    Apr 9, 2019 at 13:45

The only way the lack of presidential term limits would lead to a dictatorship is for a sitting president to somehow cancel future elections. This however is impossible given that it would require constitutional (legal) changes that a president alone cannot make (at least in the U.S. and in countries with a similar system of government).

Therefore presidential term limits is a very undemocratic method of preventing a president that might be popular with the majority of voters from getting re-elected.

In the U.S., the presidential term limit was put in place in 1951 with the ratification of the 22nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment was pushed through by the U.S. elites after a popular president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was elected for the fourth term.


  • If anyone wants to get fact-based (for a change) one could ask which countries have limits. This could be compared to rankings of how democratic countries are. May 26, 2021 at 17:24
  • @KeithMcClary are you saying that the USA became democratic only in 1951 after it adopted presidential term limits?
    – ebhh2001
    May 26, 2021 at 19:23
  • @KeithMcClary ... other countries whose leaders have no set term limits include Canada, Germany, Israel, and the UK. Do you consider those countries undemocratic?
    – ebhh2001
    Jun 16, 2021 at 13:15
  • Yeah, no elections cancelled in Russia. Jan 31 at 10:57
  • And the historical angle, you're also pretty mistaken. First, FDR was dead already. The 22nd amendment even carved out a an exception for Turman, his (same party) successor, who could in theory have served 3 terms, but who--in line with the pre-FDR tradition--declined. It is true however that [earlier on] FDR's 3rd election campaign was somewhat dominated by this issue. In different circumstances, an attempt at a 3rd term was pretty fractious for the Republican party, during TR's time [1912]. Jan 31 at 23:51

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