Americans are headed for multiparty politics and third terms - they just don’t know it yet

The bickering among Republican Party contenders is typical of what happens among the opposition in many African countries.

AMERICANS will elect their next president in November 2016 and, given the USA’s two-party system, whoever will be sworn in will either be a Democrat or Republican.

At least 15 Republicans threw their hats in the ring for their party’s nomination, and so far the contenders have had two primary debates.

For both debates, the candidates had to be split into two groups, with those with the lowest poll numbers debating first and the top-tier contenders getting primetime slots. Anyone watching the debates from Africa, particularly those in multiparty “democratic” states must have been reminded of general elections in their respective countries where seven or more candidates usually contest the presidency.

Kenya’s 2013 presidential election featured eight hopefuls and earlier this year, Zambia’s hotly contested January 20 election following the death of the country’s former president Michael Sata, had 11 candidates.

Zambia’s president Edgar Lungu after he was elected early in the year in a race that had 11 candidates. (Photo/AFP).

In Nigeria, there were 14 last March while Sudan’s April election had 16 aspirants, although in several of these countries it was difficult to know that there were other candidates apart from the incumbent president in the race.

Familiar bickering

The bickering among the Republican contenders is typical of what happens among the opposition in many African countries where different camps spend more time tearing each other down, splitting the vote, and in effect handing the incumbent an easy win.

Rampant vote rigging in many African countries aside, though, voters still get to choose someone they feel best represents their interests (even if they be ethnic), which is not really the case for predominantly two-party democracies like the US. 

While independents or third party candidates aren’t barred from running for president, the race is really down to Democrats and Republicans, but that could change in the near future.

There is a considerable number of Americans who are dissatisfied with both parties and, as many news outlets and pundits have pointed out, it’s exactly why unconventional candidates like Donald Trump, despite being controversial and divisive, are doing well—at least according to polls.

Voters appear to be seeking alternatives to the traditional “either or” Democrat-Republican offering and it wouldn’t be inconceivable that some are pondering electoral reforms that would open up the political space and accommodate more parties.

Donald Trump: Divisive and controversial, but represents voters’ need for a different kind of politics. (Photo/AFP).

In fact, Trump who is still enjoying the status of the Republican frontrunner, initially declined to pledge allegiance to the party, saying he wouldn’t rule out running as an independent in case he didn’t secure the nomination.

He only caved weeks later, promising to support the eventual nominee, although knowing the kind of character he is, no one should be surprised if he went back on his word if he loses the nomination.

Third term issue

The other apparent change in American politics is the increased usage of the phrase “third term”; after all, there were quite a few Americans who seriously wanted the country’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan (1981 to 1989), to hang on.

To be fair, it has always been used, often as a jab at prospective candidates from the same party as at the outgoing president. Hillary Clinton, the Democrat frontrunner has laboured to explain that getting elected would not be an extension of her husband Bill Clinton or Barack Obama’s rule after Republicans put out adverts urging their supporters and the country at large not to hand Democrats a third term.

You get the sense that pretty soon, voters may embrace the concept of an actual third term. Back in July, while addressing African Union delegates during his two-day trip to Ethiopia, President Obama joked that he just might win if the constitution allowed him to run for a third term.

A few days later, Fox News, a conservative-leaning news network conducted a poll among likely voters on Obama’s electability were he to run for a third term. It found that 30% of those polled said they would support him!

That means that with a few well placed campaign adverts and his galvanising speeches, and that figure would surely rise. With nearly all Republican contenders vowing to repel several of his policies and key legislations including the Iran nuclear deal and his signature Affordable Healthcare Act which they disdainfully termed Obamacare “on their first day in office”, maybe Obama will finally understand why the African strongmen he chided for clinging for power want to remain president for life.

Presidents for life

One of the excuses many African leaders give for hanging onto office is that they want to “finish” the job.

Future American presidents may start using it too, given their country’s often obstructive politics and gridlock that don’t allow much to get done.

Typically, an American president is too cagey during his first term because he doesn’t want to jeopardise his chances of reelection. He’s also constrained by members of his party, usually senators and governors who have their own elections  down the road to worry about.

Mid-term elections are held every two years for Members of Congress and this curtails the incumbent’s freedom to implement his agenda and, in the end, he fails to keep many of his campaign promises.

For instance in September 2014, following pressure from Democrats worried about losing their seats Obama, who had earlier on promised to take executive action on Immigration Reform after Congress failed to resolve the immigration crisis, announced that he would delay any action till after that year’s mid-terms.

This was the same president who had swept the Latino vote in both 2008 and 2012 with 67% and 71% respectively after pledging to oversee immigration reform (an issue that impacts mostly Latinos), and here he was taking a step back. Hispanics were not impressed and although he eventually extended temporary legal status to at least 5 million illegal immigrants, the damage had already been done.

Democrats had lost the House of Representatives and the president has had to work with an opposition-led Congress since.

So, even when a president does win a second term, he still doesn’t get his way all the time because while he has nothing to lose as his tenure draws to a close, his party colleagues seeking reelection do.

Extended term limits for the American president would take care of that. For America, it’s not a question of if but when, they will embrace change.

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