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  • Opposition to term limits hardened after Brazilian President 'Lula' Da Silva, a popular president, became a victim and was barred from seeking office.

    Opposition to term limits hardened after Brazilian President 'Lula' Da Silva, a popular president, became a victim and was barred from seeking office. | Photo: Reuters

Published 2 February 2018
The situation in Brazil demonstrates that the vaunted term limit process, while wrapped and presented in democratic clothing, can do more harm than good to democracy.

There's growing doubt about the policy of term limits for elected leaders. Heralded as a guarantee to prevent abuse of power, they also deny voters their absolute right to choose to re-elect leaders whose policies they remain satisfied with.

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The policy was never given much thought in the English-speaking Caribbean, for example, until it started being applied where leaders have always been re-elected as frequently as they could win free and fair elections.

There had always been quiet quarrels with some aspects of the inherited Westminster parliamentary system prevalent in Britain's former West Indian colonies: how the unelected Senate has more parliamentary standing as the Upper House than the elected parliamentarians in the Lower House, and how an elected government could be brought down if the Opposition could – outside of an election – influence sufficient elected members on the government side to simply ‘cross the floor.’

Opposition to the term limit proposition grew elsewhere after it clearly became a useful tool to deny popular political leaders office beyond two consecutive terms.

Proponents loudly argue that popular leaders, even if guaranteed re-election, should voluntarily refuse to accept third consecutive terms, instead stepping aside to give someone else a chance. By their measure, top positions are to be circulated, not contested for and democratically earned.

Opposition hardened after Brazilian President 'Lula' Da Silva became a victim: a popular president – whose policies in office had taken millions of Brazilians out of poverty in just two terms – was barred from office because the law said he couldn’t continue to occupy it, even if a national majority wanted him to.

A Terrible Injustice

That was a terrible injustice against both Lula and the millions still in poverty awaiting their turn to be rescued by his positive policies. The only winners were the political opposition, who couldn't find anyone to beat him at the ballot box.

Lula left office with an 83 percent popularity rating – and the Workers Party replaced him with Dilma Rousseff, but Rousseff was not Lula and their opponents opted to try doing to her what they couldn't do to him.

During Rousseff's presidential campaign, the right wing highlighted that she had been "a guerilla" who participated in "armed struggle." Never mind that she had been imprisoned and tortured. The fact she took up arms against the state – even though it was a dictatorship – was used as sufficient ammunition to gun her down.

Ultimately Rousseff was elected, but with the Workers Party so very strong, her opponents found new ways to prevent her from contesting a second term. This time they would use a constitutional coup.

In 2016, President Rousseff was accused of breaking the law – without committing a criminal act – and the parliamentary plotters used that to haul the democratic red carpet from under her feet.

Clinging to Power

Naturally, popular politicians negated by term limits have found it difficult to publicly argue against such limits, if only for fear of being accused of wanting to cling to power. As a result, most opt to do the next best thing: accept being made unable to contest until they are once again able to qualify.

Naturally, however, because actions always breed reactions and necessity always creates invention, there emerged over time those who found legal means to overcome the challenge and remain in power, even if not in the number one position.

Example: Russian President Vladimir Putin opted serve as prime minister under former President Dmitri Medvedev until Putin once again qualified to regain the presidency.

The Putin-Medvedev formula was not applied in Brazil: the constitutional coup not only removed Rousseff from office, but also her party from power.

However, that was not the end of the treacherous political plot against the Workers Party. With unavoidable elections to follow, the designers of democratic dissonance worked overtime to plan and activate another no-less-effective ploy.

With Lula qualifying and his party opting to field him as its candidate for the October 2018 elections, their opponents elected for another constitutional coup: using his earlier conviction – on what he always described as a trumped-up corruption charge – to disqualify him.

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Lula in January lost the first of three possible appeals against his conviction, but that did not seal his political fate and his party let it be known – even before the judges ruled – that he would still be its candidate.

Lula leads by far in all pre-election popularity polls and his party insists it will register him when the time comes on August 15, effectively leaving Brazil in a political tailspin. His party does not intend to leave him out of the race, and his opponents are equally determined to prevent that.

What will happen is wholly unpredictable, but that could have been avoided had Lula been left to decide if and when he wanted to stand down from the presidency, instead of being constitutionally forced out of office.

The situation in Brazil demonstrates that the vaunted term limit process, while wrapped and presented in democratic clothing, can do more harm than good to democracy because it absolutely denies voters their absolute right to decide who they elect.

Earl Bousquet is a Saint Lucia-based veteran Caribbean journalist.

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