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Angela forever: Is that still democracy?

Greta Hamann
November 20, 2016

There is no constitutional limit in Germany as to how many terms a chancellor can serve in office. In theory, Angela Merkel could rule for as long as she lives – provided the people still vote for her.

Berlin Reichstag an der Spree
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Under the German constitution there is no limit to the number of terms a chancellor can serve in office. Germany is no exception in this regard: France is the only European country in which the government leader has to step down after a maximum of eight years. In parliamentary systems like Germany's, the head of government – a chancellor or prime minister – is not directly elected by the people. With their votes the electorate can, however, directly influence who heads the government after the election.

Frank Decker, a political scientist based in Bonn, says the absence of a limit on the leader's term of office is not a problem. "In parliamentary government systems this question essentially takes care of itself, so you don't need to set a time limit," he explains. According to Decker, at some point the head of government will not be re-elected. More specifically, the head of government can also be toppled by a no-confidence vote in parliament. This is what happened in 1982. The SPD chancellor at the time, Helmut Schmidt, was ousted after a vote proposed by the CDU. He was succeeded by the CDU leader, Helmut Kohl.

Long terms in office do not diminish democracy

The political scientist's statements are supported by experience. Italy, for example, has had more than 20 prime ministers in the 70 years since the end of World War Two. Great Britain has had 15. For Germany to have a chancellor – Helmut Kohl, and now perhaps Angela Merkel – who serves for as long as 16 years is an exceptional case in Europe.

But is it democratic to have a head of state who doesn't want to relinquish power? "At first glance, this may appear to be an obvious question," says Decker. "But Helmut Kohl had a good answer for this. He was once asked about having been in office almost as long as Bismarck, the former Chancellor of the Reich. He replied, 'Unlike Bismarck, I've always been re-elected.'" The political scientist explains that long terms in office occur in Germany and other parliamentary systems simply because the head of state is endorsed by the people after each legislative term.

US: a maximum of two parliamentary terms

In presidential-parliamentary systems, as on the American continent, it would not be possible for any one person to govern for so long. Under these systems, the president is chosen directly by the people, independently of parliament – and in most cases this cannot happen more than two times in a row.

Franklin und Eleanor Roosevelt
Franklin und Eleanor Roosevelt - circa 1935Image: GettyImages/Keystone

However, the eight-year time limit imposed in the United States is a "historical coincidence," according to the political scientist Frank Decker. "The first president, George Washington, said of his own accord, after two terms in office, that that was enough for him. And all of his successors have followed this example." Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with this tradition during World War Two, by running for a third term in 1940. After this the eight-year limitation on the presidency was written into the US constitution. 

In Germany, too, there are those who argue for the introduction of a time limitation on the office of chancellor. The political scientist Frank-Rudolf Korte of the University of Duisburg-Essen has called on Merkel to refrain from standing again, and for chancellors to be allowed to remain in office for a maximum of two legislative periods. "The parties and the voters would be spared exhausted candidates or undignified wars of succession," said Korte, writing in the news magazine Focus.

Angela Merkel kandidiert erneut
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

The right time to go

Frank Decker also thinks that, although the possibilities may appear unlimited, a politician should realize that, sooner or later, enough is enough. "At some point the voters have had enough of always seeing the same person," he says. He does, however, believe that if such an aversion were to become apparent among the people, the head of government's party would act very swiftly. "If, for example, the CDU observes that Mrs Merkel is messing things up, or that she isn't going to win them the election any more, she'll soon be out of the picture. If that happens, she'll be overthrown by her own people."

But Decker assumes that this is not what will happen with Angela Merkel. "She'll probably consider making way for a successor on her own accord. It will probably be someone from her party in the middle of the next legislative period, so in 2019," he says. This would make her the first German chancellor to leave the field voluntarily. For that, though, she first has to win her fourth parliamentary election as chancellor candidate, in 2017.