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Want political stability in Iraq? Start with term limits.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not going gentle into that political good night. He shouldn't have a choice.
 
Maliki's supporters take to the streets.
Maliki's supporters take to the streets. (AP Photo/ Hadi Mizban)

Iraq's government appears to be ready to part ways with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But after two terms in office, Maliki isn't ready to go.

On Monday, President Fuad Masum — a 76-year-old Kurd selected by parliament July 24 — nominated Haider al-Abadi, the deputy speaker of parliament, to replace Maliki. Key members of Abadi and Maliki's Shiite Dawa Party endorsed the decision, and the U.S. cheered. Meanwhile, Maliki called loyal troops out to the streets and vowed to sue Masum.

Maliki is increasingly unpopular, in parliament and on the street, but "the problem is he still has great power," a senior Shiite leader told The New York Times. "He controls the police and the army, plus the Special Forces. Our biggest fear is that Maliki could arrest everyone who participates in this" effort to push him out of office.

Another official warned that Maliki has "gone out of his mind, and lives on a different planet — he doesn’t appreciate the mess he has created."

The main fear is that Maliki will keep power through raw force, a concern Maliki himself is doing little to assuage. The nomination of Abadi is "null and void," he said Monday. "I say to all of you fighters on the front lines...the army...the police...remain in your places and do not worry or be shaken over the constitutional violation... We will repair the mistake."

In case the Saddam Hussein echoes weren't loud enough, Maliki added, "No one has the right to do anything...without my permission."

Iraqi lawmakers tried to avoid this situation last year. In January 2013, parliament passed a law limiting Iraq's president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament to two terms. But the Supreme Federal Court struck down the law eight months later, declaring it unconstitutional and invalid because it originated in parliament, not the Maliki-run federal government. (Iraq's constitution already limits the president to two terms, but it's mum on the prime minister.)

Opposition lawmaker Mohammed al-Khalidi accused the high court of bowing to political pressure, arguing that "rejecting the law is a danger to democracy in Iraq." Regardless of how Baghdad resolves the latest political crisis, Khalidi was right in this respect: preventing the rise of a prime-minister-for-life is crucial to maintaining a healthy balance of power in Iraq's post-Saddam democratic experiment.

We take the U.S. presidential term limit as a given today, but it only dates back to 1951, when the 22nd Amendment was enacted to prevent another presidency like Franklin D. Roosevelt's (who was elected four times but died shortly into his final term). The custom of term limits dates back further: George Washington could have been president for life, most likely, but he voluntarily (and, one supposes, happily) stepped down after two terms.

Congressional term limits were part of the pre-Constitution Articles of Confederation (Article V), and during the Civil War, the Confederate States of America limited their presidency to one six-year term — a limit Jefferson Davis never got a chance to test.

There's a good case to be made that term limits are actually fundamentally undemocratic, since they limit the will of the people to decide who represents them. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were in favor of term limits, but ultimately the framers of the Constitution left them out. James Madison argued against term limits for Congress, and Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 72, offered this pithy judgment: "Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection."

Even presidential term limits have their detractors — including George Washington himself, as NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman noted last year in The Washington Post in his own impassioned argument against the practice.

Opponents of term limits make some persuasive points. But putting a temporal limit on power isn't a new idea — the inventors of democracy even gave it a whirl, in Athens, sixth century B.C. There's an alluring wisdom in countering, however imperfectly, the corrupting influence of power by limiting the amount of time people can spend accruing that power.

Iraq's case is different that America's. In Iraq's parliamentary system, the prime minister — who wields more power than the president — is elected indirectly. But all the arguments and counterarguments about term limits sometimes bump up against concrete realities — and the reality here is that term limits on prime ministers would be a healthy thing for Iraq's fledgling, fractured democracy right now.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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