In for the long haul?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2008, 12:00am

The election of Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president, to succeed Vladimir Putin, is being viewed with consternation in certain quarters. Is Mr Putin seeking to prolong his rule by picking a protege who will, in effect, let him run the country by appointing him prime minister? Mr Putin has already served eight years as president, the constitutionally imposed limit.

Maybe it will turn out that way, but it is far too early to reach such a conclusion. When asked at his first press conference after the election who would run Russia's foreign policy, Mr Medvedev answered without hesitation that he would, since that is stipulated in the constitution. Besides, unless Mr Putin were to claim authority not designated for the prime minister, there seems little reason to fault him for being willing to accept a lesser post in order to continue to serve his country.

Term limits are imposed for a reason: to ensure that an individual does not continue in office for too long, lest power go to his head. The Soviet Union allowed its leaders to serve for life and, so, it is certainly a step forward that the Russian Federation has limited its presidents to two terms.

In Asia, where one-man dictatorships used to be common, some countries have reacted by limiting their leaders to one term.

In the Philippines, for example, the aversion to the 21-year-long dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, who was finally driven from office by 'people power', led to the drafting of the 1987 constitution, which limits the president to one, six-year term.

Similarly, South Korea, reacting to the military rule of such leaders as General Park Chung-hee and General Chun Doo-hwan, decided to limit the president to one five-year term.

These attempts to prevent a return to dictatorship, while understandable, have had some negative consequences. In the Philippines, for example, it meant that president Fidel Ramos, the only effective president the country has seen since the fall of Marcos, was unable to continue his work to turn the country around because of the single-term constitutional requirement. Though there was an attempt at the time to change the constitution, it was staunchly opposed by the Church and former president Corazon Aquino.

This suggests that countries like South Korea and the Philippines may have gone too far and, given time, may decide to have enough faith in their institutions to allow a popularly elected president to serve for more than one term.

Actually, what many observers fear may happen in Russia occurred in Taiwan more than three decades ago, though perhaps not by design. Although the Republic of China's constitution limited a president to two terms, that provision was suspended by the nationalist government during the period of 'communist rebellion' on the mainland - so Chiang Kai-shek served, in effect, as president for life.

When the 87-year-old president died in 1975, his elder son Chiang Ching-kuo was the premier and remained in that post. Vice-president Yen Chia-kan officially took over the presidency. But then, a curious thing happened.

Power no longer resided with the presidency, which became something of a figurehead position; the real power lay in the hands of the premier. Moreover, the younger Chiang succeeded his father as leader of the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. So, it was clear to all that Chiang, not Yen, held the reins of power. In 1978, after Yen had gone through the motions of serving out the remaining years of the old man's presidency, Chiang Ching-kuo moved over to become president. Suddenly, the presidency became all-powerful once more, and the premier was simply his appointee whose job it was to implement the president's policies.

Maybe Mr Putin, having picked Mr Medvedev to succeed him, and appoint him premier, has found a way to get around the Russian constitution. But it is too early to condemn him. We need first to observe Mr Medvedev in action.

All this should serve as a reminder that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It is not that difficult to subvert democracies, especially ones that are young and fragile, such as those in Russia and much of Asia.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator