Is There a Connection Between Corruption and Term Limits in Local Government?
Recent years have seen the emergence of dozens of corruption affairs involving investigations against Israeli mayors, and subsequently there have been calls for setting mayoral term limits to prevent graft and corruption. However, in a review of 20 recently publicized cases of suspected mayoral corruption, we found that most had occurred during the mayor’s first or second term. We also found that, in the last local elections in 2013, more than half the mayors elected were first-timers and that only a small number of mayors have served for many terms. While imposing mayoral term limits may have some advantages, it is highly doubtful that such a step would achieve real gains in the fight against corruption.
Recent years have seen a series of corruption scandals in local government that have mainly involved mayors suspected of criminal acts, and that have even resulted in convictions for some of them. Yet some of those suspected, despite the investigations against them, are about to run for office in the upcoming local elections.
Against this backdrop, a bill was introduced to the Knesset seeking to impose term limits for mayors with the main goal being to reduce corruption in local government. According to the bill’s proponents, mayors who serve for too long acquire disproportionate power, opening the door to abuse of privilege and to problematic behavior. These proponents claim that there is a connection between long periods in power and corruption (Hovel, 2013), and thus it is important to restrict the number of times a mayor is allowed serve in office (Snir, 2018).
What are the implications of a bill of this kind? Is it common in other democracies to limit mayors’ terms of office? Are there known to be positive outcomes of such restrictions, or might they in fact have the opposite effect? We begin this article with a presentation of the existing forms of term limits in use; we continue with a comparative examination of democracies in which term limits are imposed on mayors, and a review of the advantages and disadvantages of such limits; and we then offer an analysis of the terms of office of the 190 mayors (and heads of local councils) who were elected in 2013. We will also look at whether patterns can be identified linking longer terms of service with involvement in criminal behavior or with a suspicion of criminal behavior. In the final section, we claim that, in terms of the expected impact of term limits for mayors in Israel, the unknowns far outnumber the knowns. It is possible that the disadvantages of such a step actually outweigh any positive outcomes.
Term Limits: Definition and Types
A “term limit” is an institutional feature that restricts the number of terms for which an elected public official may hold office. In the context of democratic principles, term limits can be regarded as an institutional mechanism compatible with the “checks and balances” approach and the curbing of executive powers, and which prevents the accumulation of excessive centralized power. For political positions, there are two main types of term limits. The first is the permanent term limit, which prevents a person who has served a specified number of terms from ever holding the same position again. The second is the consecutive term limit, which prevents a person who has served a specified number of consecutive terms from running for reelection the same office, but which may allow him/her to run again after a “cooling off” period.
In principle, term limits can be applied to a range of political positions, both national (president, prime minister, ministers, members of parliament) and local (governors, mayors, and members of city councils). In practice, they are almost always applied to the highest position in an executive body. It is therefore no surprise that this tool emerged in presidential and semi-presidential systems of government, in which there is a danger that a strong president who is directly elected may be able to acquire excessive political power in his hands.
For many years, there was no term limit applied to US presidents. Though George Washington’s retirement after two terms established a political tradition whereby no president competes for a third term, this was not anchored in law until the 1950s, and after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four consecutive presidential terms brought the issue to the fore. Consequently, the 22nd amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1951, limiting the presidency to just two terms. Similar term limits are now common in most presidential democracies, and some are even stricter. In Mexico, for example, the president is elected for a single six-year term. In Chile, presidents are restricted to a single four-year term, but they make seek reelection for an additional term following a cooling-off period.
In contrast with these widespread limitations on presidents’ terms of office, it is not common for parliamentary systems to impose term limits on prime ministers. In most of these democracies, prime ministers do not enjoy a fixed term and can be ousted by parliament at any time, so the danger of them being able to accumulate excessive power is much smaller. While in several parliamentary democracies the powers granted to prime ministers have recently been increased, in a process referred to in the literature as “presidentialization,” the institutional mechanisms allowing for the replacement of prime ministers act as sufficient protection against the dangers of over-centralization and corruption.In a few parliamentary democracies, there are in fact limits on presidential terms of office, which are mainly ceremonial functions with only weak executive powers. Thus, for example, Israel’s president is elected for a single seven-year term; Ireland’s president is limited to two terms of seven years each; and Germany’s president may only serve two terms of five years each.
The logic that dictates the existence of term limits in presidential systems and their absence in parliamentary systems can also be applied to lower levels of government. In countries in which local government is run along parliamentary lines (whereby the mayor is not directly elected but rather is appointed by the political majority in the city council, on which they dependent on) we would not expect to find term limits. On the other hand, in countries with presidential-like systems of local government (in which the mayor is directly elected for a fixed term and is not dependent on the political balance of power in the city council), we may find justification for the use of term limits. Israel’s system of local government was reformed from a parliamentary system to a presidential system in the 1970s. This raises the question of whether the terms of office of mayors and heads of local councils should now be limited.
A Comparative View
A survey conducted by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that only five out of 35 countries examined, impose term limits on mayors (Spector, Ben-Ari, 2014). Italy, Portugal, and Andorra limit the terms of mayors in all cities. In the United States and Switzerland, the federal structure creates a situation in which this regulation is implemented at a lower level of government: every state or canton is free to determine its own policy on this issue, and only in some are term limits applied. An additional examination we carried out found that there are no other European democracies that limit the terms of mayors. By contrast, there are several countries that do so in Latin America, such as Brazil and Mexico. It should be noted that three of the countries in which terms in office are limited, have a presidential regime at the national level, and are thus significantly different from countries with a parliamentary regime, in that the former have a far more rigid system of checks and balances. Below, we present in detail the arrangements in each of the countries that apply term limits in local government.
Italy had no term limits for mayors until 1993, when a comprehensive reform of local government was introduced that included direct mayoral elections, alongside term limits (Dalle Nogare and Hessami, 2014). The original law allowed for two four-year terms, though this was amended in 2000 to a maximum of five-year terms.
Unlike Italy, mayors in Portugal are not elected directly, but rather are appointed by majority vote of the city council, for a four-year term. A law adopted in 2005 limited (for the first time) the number of consecutive terms in mayoral office to three four-year terms. This term limit was applied at the 2013 elections, and resulted in almost half of the country’s local authority heads (150) being ineligible for reelection (Lopes da Fonseca, 2016).
In the United States, both mayors and municipal council members are elected directly, but term limits (where they exist) are set at the state or even at the municipal level. This arrangement leads to a great deal of variation. Surveys of local government in the United States conducted in 2006 and 2011 found that around 90% of the cities surveyed had no limit to the number of mayoral terms, and those term limits that were in place were found mainly in large cities (with more than 250,000 residents). Furthermore, it was found that in around 55% of these cities, the number of terms was limited to two, and in around 25% of them, to three terms (Spector-Ben Ari, 2014). As stated, there are differences in term limits even among cities within the same state. Thus, in Texas for example, Houston mayors are restricted to two four-year terms, while in San Antonio, they serve two-year terms, and are limited to four terms. In contrast to these two cities, in which these limits are permanent, the limit in Austin applies only to consecutive terms.
In Switzerland, every municipality can set its own limitations on mayors’ terms of office and on the number of terms allowed, in accordance with legislation at the local or canton level. Spector-Ben Ari (2014) offers two examples: Bienne, in which the mayor is restricted to four four-year terms; and Geneva, in which the mayoral office is rotated among five members of the city council.
Since 1988, Brazilian mayors are elected in direct elections, originally limited to a single term of four years. A later amendment to the law made it possible for them to seek reelection, and since 2000 mayors are allowed to serve two consecutive four-year terms. After a cooling-off period of four years, mayors can then seek reelection for additional terms (Klein and Sakurai, 2015).
Until 2014, mayors in Mexico were elected for a single term of three years, with no possibility of reelection (excepting Mexico City, whose mayor is elected for a single six-year term). There was considerable criticism of this method as being detrimental to the performance of mayors and local government: due to the shortness of their term of office, council members and mayors were unable to develop expertise in municipal issues, and struggled to understand and follow the institutional “rules of the game.” The strict term limit also prevented the implementation of policy over time, jeopardizing the efficiency of local government (Packel, 2018). In 2014, a constitutional amendment was passed, allowing mayors to be elected for one additional term.
Mayoral Term Limits: Advantages and Disadvantages
As we have seen, term limits for mayors are not common, especially in parliamentary democracies. Moreover, many mayors around the world serve for very long terms of office. In Israel too, there have been mayors who have served for many years, such as Teddy Kollek in Jerusalem, Shlomo Lahat in Tel Aviv, and Avraham Krinitzi in Ramat Gan. Currently, with the local elections on the horizon, there are 11 mayors who have served five or more terms.
Disadvantages of Term Limits
Reduced accountability: One of the important principles of elections is that they allow voters to reward elected officials who have performed well, and to punish those who performed poorly or abused their office in an opportunistic fashion, by choosing not to reelect them. Elected officials are accountable to the public, and good performance is rewarded by reelection.
Lack of experience: Political experience in an executive position such as mayor can be very important for the quality of government, management, and performance. Newly-elected mayors generally need a period of adjustment in which they acquire knowledge and experience. Term limits can therefore have negative consequences, among them--inefficiency. The inexperience of newly-elected mayors can also lead to a concentration of disproportionate power in the hands of municipal professionals’ echelon, on which new officials are reliant, and thus prevent the implementation of new policies.
Springboard to other positions: Term limits can encourage mayors to begin looking for their next job during their final term in office, which can lead to their behavior and decision-making being unduly influenced by considerations related to their future role.
Invitation to corruption: Toward the end of a fixed term of office, mayors have no political horizon, and thus may be more open to influence by wealthy elites. Thus, fixed terms can create a serious conflict of interest in which mayors, who control the public purse on the local level, can distribute monies and support certain business interests without being troubled by the prospect of being punished by the public.
Planning for the Short Term only: Term limits can hinder long-term planning and policy implementation, likely to be particularly harmful in the areas of urban planning and construction, which require long-term vision. Mayors whose term of office is restricted may prefer to invest their efforts in short-term plans and projects, which offer more immediate benefits. Indeed, a study of local government in the United States found that mayors with limited terms invested less in long-term projects, particularly regarding infrastructure (McGlynn and Sylvester, 2010).
Advantages of Term Limits
Increased competition: The current system affords an advantage to incumbents, both because the public tends to vote for familiar candidates, and because during the period leading up to the elections, mayors in office can allocate budgets as they see fit, and according to what they perceive as their voters’ preferences. Moreover, term limits can help refresh the leadership ranks, because no officials can remain in office for very long. Similarly, there is an increased likelihood that minority candidates and female candidates will run and get elected, thereby improving representativeness of a range of population groups. However, a study of around 1,000 local election candidacies from five states in the United States, which included more than 400 candidates, found that the introduction of term limits did not affect the quality of candidates, nor did it affect the reelection of incumbent mayors.
Infusing new ideas to the system: Term limits can prevent stagnation in thinking about municipal planning and day-to-day management. Refreshing the ranks of municipal leadership can open up the way to new directions for plans and projects.
Ensuring a municipality for the benefit of residents rather than for its of career politicians: Politicians who hold office for a long period of time can lose touch with their constituencies. Term limits can create municipalities that are attuned more to the needs of professional politicians rather than those of its residents. Thus, officials whose term of office is limited will do more to represent public opinion and voters, without being swayed by considerations relating to future reelection or to placating specific groups or businesses for the sake of political survival.
Increased voter participation in local elections: All the advantages listed above also have the potential to increase voter participation in local elections. In local elections in which the competition is between new candidates and the outcome is less certain, residents may be more interested in the elections, encouraging them to turn out to vote and perhaps even to participate in other ways as well.
Reduced expenditure and waste: Term limits can cut down on unnecessary expenditures. Towards the end of a fixed term, mayors are likely to spend less money targeted at winning reelection, such as by finding favor in the eyes of specific electoral groups. Studies in Italy and Portugal have found that serving mayors seeking reelection adopt more free-spending fiscal policies than those approaching the end of a fixed term (Dalle Nogare and Lopes da Fonseca, 2016; Hessami, 2014). A study of US local government from 1993 to 2003 found that mayors with term restrictions allocated fewer resources to growing the municipal workforce. However, the same study also found that term limits did not affect free-spending fiscal policies involving tax reduction and increasing municipal debt, unlike other influential factors such as the city’s financial situation (McGlynn and Sylvester, 2010). Another study, which examined the effects of term limits on fiscal policy in US local government found that not only did mayors eligible for reelection perform with greater efficiency than mayors with fixed terms—indicating that they were more accountable to voters—but also that they had a broader array of skills that made them better suited to the position (Alt, Bueno de Mesquita, and Rose, 2011).
Table 1: Advantages and Disadvantages of Mayoral Term Limits
|Disadvantages of Term Limits||Advantages of Term Limits|
|Reduced accountability, as voters are unable to reward/punish candidates who have performed well/poorly||Increased competition, as new candidates will seek election|
|Lack of experience—inexperienced candidates are elected||Infusion of new ideas, due to the entry of new candidates and new elected officials|
|Springboard to other positions—term limits encourage mayors to seek their next job in their final term||Greater involvement of residents instead of career politicians—municipal leadership will include more residents seeking to advance local interests, and fewer politicians|
|Invitation to corruption—during their final term, mayors have less incentive to be accountable to their electorate, inviting corruption||Increased voter participation in local elections|
|Short-termism—mayors facing a term limit will tend to favor short-term (rather than long-term) planning||Reduced expenditure—mayors will spend less, particularly during their final terms|
Extended Terms of Mayors in Israel: Are They a Problem?
As discussed, the law in Israel does not limit mayors’ terms of office, and thus some of them have been in office for particularly long periods. As of 2018, the two longest-serving mayors are Shlomo Bohbut (Ma’alot-Tarshiha) and Ephraim Deri (Kfar Yona), both of whom have been in office for more than 40 years consecutively (nine terms). They are followed by Yehiel Zohar (Netivot), Adi Eldar (Karmiel), and Simon Alfasi (Yokneam Illit), who have been in office for 29 years. Our review of the 190 heads of local authorities who were elected in 2013 revealed that 95 of them (half) were elected to a first term or (in nine cases) to a repeat term after a break of at least one term out of office. The other half were elected for a second consecutive term (or more).
Is it possible to identify a connection between length of service and political corruption? Are long-serving mayors likely to become intoxicated by power and become involved in shady dealings? Are episodes of corruption more common among longer-serving mayors than among than among those new to the office? According to our examination, the answer to all these questions is negative. In other words: the number of terms served does not seem to have any connection to suspecting mayors’ corruption.
The above review of the pros and cons of term limits reveals that there are no guarantees that this institutional mechanism will necessarily have positive results. While it is possible that limiting terms may increase voter turnout and electoral competition and reduce the potential excessive power veteran mayors hold, we believe that the cost might be too high. Term limits might harm competent mayors who have been in office for years and enjoy popularity, and thus would undermine the right of residents to reelect them. Moreover, limiting terms may reduce mayors’ accountability and constrain their ability to implement long-term plans, and under certain conditions-- may even serve as an incentive to political corruption.
The right to stand for election is one of the most fundamental democratic rights, and limiting mayoral terms may infringe on it without any guarantee of positive effects. The fact that only a small minority of parliamentary democracies have adopted term limits in local government demonstrates that this is not a tool that is widely viewed as effective. For the purposes of fighting corruption in local government it would be preferable to consider other more direct measures, such as increasing oversight and regulation. For example, efforts could be made to increase transparency in municipal government (Shwarz Altshuler, 2014(; or to impose stricter sanctions against mayoral candidates violating rules concerning campaign funding (Ben-Bassat, Dahan, and Klor, 2013, p. 107). It is also possible reform the operation of local authority building and planning committees. Other possibilities include requiring mayors to declare conflicts of interest shortly after their election; excluding elected officials from municipal tender committees; reinforcing the status of municipal gatekeepers, such as the legal counsel, treasurer, and internal auditor; and of course, increasing enforcement.
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