April 3, 2023
Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair served as Prime Ministers for approximately 9, 12, and 10 years respectively. Are they on top of the list of longest-serving British leaders? No. Sir Robert Walpole, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons, in other words, the de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain. He remained in power for almost 22 years but that was in the mid-18th century.
Charles de Gaulle served one full 7-year term; resigned 3 years into the second term. François Mitterrand was the President of France for two full 7-year terms. Jacques Chirac served one full 7-year term and one full 5-year term.
Konrad Adenauer was elected as the first Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in September 1949. He held office for 14 years and shaped Germany in its founding years. Helmut Kohl was the Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany for 16 years. It was during his time that the two parts of Germany were reunited. Chancellor Merkel stayed in power also for 16 years. She was Europe’s de facto leader.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President four times. Roosevelt’s decision to break the two-term precedent set by George Washington and run for a third term was made in July 1940, as the United States neared its entry into the Second World War. Altogether, Mr. Roosevelt remained at the White House from March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945. However, more than two terms for presidents were seen as incompatible with democracy, and in 1951 Congress adopted the 22nd Amendment which set the present two terms limit.
President Putin has ruled Russia since May 7, 2000. He restored Russia’s major power status, but the invasion of Ukraine proved a miscalculation and prestige took a blow.
In October last year, President Xi Jinping secured a third five-year term as the leader of China. Under his leadership, China has reached the final destination of a long journey to become one of the world’s two leading powers.
These long terms in office pale in comparison with those of the Middle East leaders.
The Arab Spring blossomed in December 2010 in Tunisia when street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the arbitrary seizing of his vegetable stand by the police. Mass protests forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign in January 2011, after 23 years in power, and go into exile in Saudi Arabia.
In February 2011, mass protests forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign after three decades in power.
When President Gaddafi suffered a tragic death, he had been in power for more than four decades.
Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was the fourth Arab leader to be forced from power. Demonstrations calling for the end of his 33-year rule began in January 2011 and forced him to hand over power to his deputy.
In February 2019, tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets demanding an end to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s two-decades-long rule. On April 3, he had to resign. In reality, he was removed from power.
In April 2019, Sudan’s military responding to people’s protests ousted President Omar al-Bashir. He had been in power for nearly three decades after staging a coup in 1989.
Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, has been in office for 23 years.
President Erdogan has ruled Türkiye as prime minister and twice as president for the past two decades and he is running yet for another term under a constitution that says, “A person may be elected as the President of the Republic for two terms at most.”
Benjamin Netanyahu was already the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history, having served for 15 years. The October 2022 election was Israel’s fifth in less than four years. Mr. Netanyahu is now back in power with the Israeli far-right. If brought to conclusion, his government’s plan to “overhaul” Israel’s legal system, called a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic identity by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, will set an inspiring example for Middle East autocrats.
In brief, an insatiable appetite for perpetual power and aversion to power sharing is a disease of Middle East politics. Middle East leaders are marathon runners. They hate to take part in relay races where the runner finishing one leg passes on the baton to the next runner. But they enjoy waving nightsticks.
After New Zealand’s Christchurch tragedy in 2019, I said “Prime Minister Ardern has been beyond praise in her handling of an impossible situation. I do trust her to remain on this very path. And when the time comes, she will become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations. Mark my words …” [i]
In January 2023, she announced her resignation saying:
“I am leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not.
“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple”.
By doing so, Jacinda Ardern, a democratic leader, has set a remarkable example for the world’s autocrats glued to their seats. And she remains my candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General. When that day comes, democratic countries and the world’s women should rally behind her since this would be the strongest message to the undemocratic, misogynistic regimes in the broad Middle East. After all, as Vice President Kamala Harris has said, “the status of women is the status of democracy.”