Term limits for a prime minister?

Lots of presidents have term limits–either one term or two, typically (and with variations in whether an interim out of office permits a later return). But terms limits on prime ministers are rare. The only cases that come to mind are Botswana and South Africa. Just to confuse things, those countries call their chief executive “president”; however, they (together with their cabinets) are responsible to the majority in the assembly, and thus these are prime ministers in the sense of heads of government whose political survival depends on parliamentary confidence.

Given the small number of cases, there may not be much of a literature in political science or law about term-limiting prime ministers. I am wondering if readers are aware of anything that one should read to understand the implications and possible motivations for term limits on assembly-responsible executives.

The question of term-limiting the prime minister comes up now and then in Israel, including in the current campaign, where New Hope Party leader Gideon Saar has said the first bill he would advance if he becomes Prime Minister would set a term limit of eight years. The idea has come up also in the past. Once upon a time, apparently even none other than Benjamin Netanyahu thought it was a good idea; this was, of course, before serving 2009–21 (and perhaps beyond) in the position. The issue comes up at times elsewhere as well (such as Grenada and St. Kitts and such a measure was passed, controversially, in Iraq). (Edit: in a comment, JD notes that Belize and Thailand have term limits in their prime ministers.)

I would generally suspect that the logic of term limits (prevent one person from monopolizing power) fits poorly with the logic of parliamentarism (the head of government serves at the pleasure of the assembly majority). But apparently any such poor fit does not prevent the idea surfacing here and there. It would be especially challenging to formulate a workable term-limit provision in a country that often has early elections–sometimes very early and frequent ones–like Israel.

12 thoughts on “Term limits for a prime minister?

  1. If the parliamentary democracy has fixed terms and extra election like Norway and Sweden, then it might be easier to have term limits. The longest ruling Prime Minister in a democratic country Tage Erlanger 23 years, and the current Prime Minister of Samoa looks likely to surpass that. There are no terms in a parliamentary democracy per se, perhaps maximum years served regardless if it is continuous is easiest to interpret. No prime minister shall serve no longer than 15 years. Prime Ministers are in office longer than Presidents are.

    What about a country like Suriname where the President is elected by parliament with a 2/3rds majority, if the 2/3rds is not met, then a electoral college is convened with majority vote electing the President, but can’t be impeached or removed? Seems similar to the Swiss system. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_Suriname



  2. Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald headed six ministries. Sir Wilfrid Laurier headed four. William Lyon Mackenzie King headed six. Pierre Trudeau headed four (plus two months before winning his first election). Jean Chrétien headed three. Stephen Harper headed three. In Ontario, Bill Davis headed four. In New Brunswick, Richard Hatfield headed four. In Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas headed five. I have seen no suggestion of term limits in Canada — we seem to leave that to the voters — but three terms seems common, while four is exceptional (Harper ran one time too many), although no one accused Bill Davis (1971 to 1985) of authoritarian tendencies.


  3. I am not really a fan of term limits for any office; beyond the implicit term limit of needing to seek re-election. However I can see why some parliamentary states want to limit the length a single person cam serve as Prime Minister. Presidentialization. The more a PM concentrates power in himself, the more the party caucus (or whatever name the elected members in parliament have) is removed from the process of selecting its own leader, the more the PM becomes an indirectly elected president, the more I can see the same reasons for limiting a president’s service apply to a PM as well.


    • I think Australia demonstrates that the degree of concentration of power in the PM and the process of selection of party leaders are, to a great extent, independent of each other.


    • Careful there, re presidentialization! I co-wrote a whole book on why (alleged) concentration of power in a prime minister is (usually) not presidentialization in any meaningful sense of what that term conveys.

      If the parliamentary caucus really has lost the effective ability to select and dismiss its own leader, then we may be talking about “presidentialization” of the party. But mere power concentration is not enough. I point this out because the comment by Mark seems to elide this key distinction.

      Now, an interesting question would be if there is any correlation between actual party rules that limit the caucus’s control over the PM and proposals to term-limit the PM. I am going to guess not, but it is in principle a testable proposition.


  4. The Prime Minister of Belize is limited to three parliamentary terms.

    Thai PMs have also been limited to two terms since 2007. Of course, the principle behind this provision is that the logic that the head of govt serves at the pleasure of the assembly must be outweighed by the logic that both head of govt and assembly serve at the pleasure of the military.


    • The president of Botswana, another ministerial president like South Africa, is limited to 10 years in aggregate.


      • Is Botswana the first country to pioneer the concept that the President is a Prime Minister? Why do we always call the German and Austrian Head of Government Chancellor and not Prime Minister? Ireland’s Head of Government Taoiseach. Spain’s Head of Government translated into English President of the Government.


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  6. I understand there is some sort of term limit plan in the new German coalition agreement (i.e. a limit on tenure of the Chancellor, who is the PM in that political system).


    • The coalition agreement mentions term limits as one of the possible points a commission on electoral reform is supposed to look into, interestingly enough in connection with a possible change the legislative terrm from 4 to 5 years.
      That might make a term limit more palatable (supermajority of 2/3 would be required), as 8 years would probably be seen as too short by many.


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