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Azerbaijan Needs A Washington More Than A Roosevelt

While Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times, the circumstances were exceptional.
With falling oil prices and increasingly tough economic times in Azerbaijan these days, it came as quite a surprise when government officials and pro-government intellectuals decided the main thing the country needed to discuss right now is whether President Ilham Aliyev should be allowed to run for a third term in 2013.

The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party has introduced the proposal in the legislature and lawmakers are rushing to authorize a constitutional referendum on the idea of eliminating the constitutional two-term restriction.

Supporters of the measure are drawing lessons from international experience. Some point out that in parliamentary systems like the United Kingdom and Turkey, prime ministers do not face term limits. Famed socialist-realist painter Tahir Salahov, who was recently given a presidential medal, has pointed out that the French president has no term limit.

And pro-Aliyev lawmaker Anar Mammadkhanli even stated that the U.S. practice of limiting presidents to two elected terms is "undemocratic," because it denies the people the right to return beloved leaders to office over and over and over. Since Azerbaijan seems intent on drawing lessons from U.S. experience in this matter, it might be worthwhile to take a closer look.

Historical Precedent

The United States declared its independence in 1776, the world's first modern republic based on deeply antimonarchical ideals. Its founders accepted that people -- all people -- are flawed and cannot be entrusted with absolute power.

They established a political system of checks and balances, in which power was distributed vertically (among the federal government, the state governments, and local governments) and horizontally (among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government). But they did not write presidential term limits into the new country's constitution.

After the first U.S. president, George Washington, served two terms, he stepped down -- decisively rejecting the idea of a third presidential term. And by doing so he set a precedent that many historians regard as his most significant contribution to U.S. history, overshadowing his role as commander during the Revolutionary War and his other contributions to the founding of the country. Simply by quitting, Washington performed a great service and virtually nullified the danger of the restoration of a monarchical system.

After Washington, any leader bold enough to consider a third term or to claim some "indispensable" status would be forced to contrast his or her accomplishments with Washington's -- with the man who turned a collection of farmers and traders into a formidable military and defeated the British Empire, who held the colonies together in their darkest times, and who played such an important role in the creation of the republic that he is universally hailed as "the father of his country." If he was not indispensable, who is?

The tradition set by Washington's example was so strong that nearly all subsequent presidents abided by it, despite there being no official ban on doing so. Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt both sought third, nonconsecutive terms, but the political process thwarted their bids.

Exception Proves The Rule

The only person willing and able to break the two-term tradition was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As the January 1941 expiry of his second term approached, World War II broke out in Europe, creating an extraordinary situation in the country. Roosevelt, as the leader who had steered the United States through the Great Depression, was able to seek and win a third term. When the next election came in late 1944, the United States was engaged in major military operations in Europe and Roosevelt won a fourth term.

But the result of Roosevelt's ambition was not that Americans began to think Washington's tradition was flawed. Rather, immediately after Roosevelt's death, a campaign began to amend the constitution and make it impossible for anyone to be elected to the presidency more than two times. In 1947, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment and it was ratified after due consideration in February 1951.

But instead of looking at Washington or the post-Roosevelt U.S. experience, authoritarian rulers like to focus on Roosevelt himself. Russia's Vladimir Putin and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez have both drawn attention to Roosevelt. Shortly before Putin decided to hand the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party held a whole conference on Roosevelt, and the Russian media ran numerous articles comparing Putin and FDR.

Now some politicians in Azerbaijan are viewing Aliyev as Azerbaijan's FDR, although they have a hard time arguing that the current situation is comparable to the one the United States and the world faced in 1941.

Presidential term limits were created to prevent politicians from clinging to power and to place system-based procedure above personality-driven politics. But it seems the impulse of many world leaders to view themselves as indispensable remains strong. Azerbaijan is just the latest in a long line of countries -- Venezuela, Russia, Central Asia states, and others -- whose arrogant leaders are turning them into feudal fiefdoms.

Instead of developing respected and stable political systems based on democratic institutions, they are building political machines based on their own personalities. And such systems are erratic, make poor international partners, and can be subject to sudden -- perhaps violent -- change. The world should take note.

Gorkhmaz Asgarov is a Washington correspondent for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL