Eric Williamson

The United States is accustomed to an orderly transfer of power when new presidents are elected. But that’s not the case around the world.

Law School researchers found last year that, from the years 2000-2019, about a third of elected presidents worldwide attempted to stay in office beyond the limits of their terms.

Perhaps even more troubling, according to the first-of-its-kind study, two-thirds of presidents who made the attempt succeeded.

Mila Versteeg
Mila Versteeg

“Most notable about these attempts is that they never involve ignoring the constitution outright,” said Professor Mila Versteeg, an expert in comparative constitutional law and the study’s co-author. “Instead, presi­dents have used a series of legal strategies to help them get around their constitution­ally mandated term limits.”

Versteeg teamed up with students in her spring 2018 Comparative Constitutional Law class, whose curiosity initiated the research. The team traced the evasion strategies of 234 incumbents in 106 countries, resulting in the paper, “The Law and Politics of Presidential Term Limit Evasion.”

<p>&ldquo;It went from a class paper to something we could work on over the summer,&rdquo; said Tim Horley &rsquo;18, who split up the geo&shy;graphic research with fellow students Marilyn Guirguis &rsquo;18 and Mauricio Guim LL.M. &rsquo;14 S.J.D. &rsquo;18.</p>
<p>UVA political science professor Anne Meng helped them establish the project&rsquo;s research and design parameters.</p>

The team broke down the different strategies that presi­dents employed, which they also detailed recently in an op-ed for The Atlantic.

The most common strategy, accounting for about 66 per­cent of the attempts to stay, was to amend the constitu­tion — as President Xi Jinping did in 2018, removing China’s term limits.

In other approaches, presidents called for the creation of all-new constitutions, often arguing that a new constitution meant that they hit the reset button on term limits. They also challenged the constitutionality of term limits in court, sought a successor they could control or delayed elections, Versteeg said.

The op-ed writers penned the piece, in part, in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Cabinet shake-up in January. The move was viewed as the beginning of radi­cal constitutional reforms. “These mea­sures are very likely aimed at ensuring that Mr. Putin can remain in power after 2024, when constitutional term limits will force him out of the presidency,” they write.

What are the implications of the term-limit eva­sion trend for the United States?

Despite President Donald Trump’s comments indicating that he might not leave office after his time is up, Versteeg sees that as unlikely. The U.S. is a stable democracy that has always had an orderly rotation of power.

“In our study, we find that term limit evasion is rare in consolidated democracies,” Versteeg noted, “although there are countries where it is an issue of debate, such as South Korea, which is considering moving from a single five-year term to two four-year terms.”

Versteeg is a Martha Lubin Karsh and Bruce A. Karsh Bicentennial Professor of Law, director of the Human Rights Program and a senior fellow at the Miller Center.

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