By Kingsley Purdam, Dave Richards and Nick Turnbull
On both sides of the Atlantic, the New Year has offered up contrasting but related events concerning the highest office of state. First, there was President Obama’s last State of the Union address, a constitutional nicety driven by the limits placed on presidential terms in the USA. For Americans, this valedictory tour de force has a familiar and predictable pattern to it; an opportunity for the incumbent to survey the highlights and narrate their own legacy, so focusing America’s mind on the issue of succession. It is notable that elsewhere and under different circumstances, some political leaders have sought to lead indefinitely, even changing their countries’ constitutions to allow them an extended period of office. President Robert Mugabe has held power in Zimbabwe since 1987. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has extended his right to rule until 2034. Similarly, one of the world’s longest serving leaders President Paul Biya of Cameroon has revised his country’s constitution to allow him to continue as president. President Putin served two terms and then stepped down because of Russia’s constitutional limits, only to return in 2012. During his interim, presidential terms in Russia just happened to be extended from four to six years! On this side of the Atlantic, the Prime Minister David Cameron has already, of his own apparent volition, opted to step down ahead of the 2020 General Election. Cameron mused that two terms as Prime Minister were quite enough, stressing the importance of retaining his sanity. Yet in January 2016, he suggested that in the event of a ‘Brexit’, he would seek to remain in office for a full term.
So what can we learn about politics and leadership from leaders who resign their roles when they could stay on? What is the optimum time for being a political leader?