Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Portugal’s Proposal for a One-Term Limit on Presidents

Teresa Violante, Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

[Editor’s Note: This is one of our ICONnect columns. For more on our 2023 columnists, see here.]

Politico recently revealed that the French President expressed frustration with the constitutional clause that prevents him from being reelected for a third term, describing it as “damnable bullshit”. On the other side of the spectrum, a proposal to amend the Portuguese Constitution has been made to enshrine a single presidential term.

This contribution briefly surveys the issue of presidential term limits and the Portuguese proposal’s merit in light of comparative law.

1. Presidential Term Limits

Macron isn’t alone in his Bonapartist contempt for presidential term limits. According to a study by Mila Versteeg and others,[1] one-third of presidents globally have adopted strategies to stay in power beyond the end of their term. If we exclude consolidated democracies, this figure rises to half.

More than sixty per cent of presidential or semi-presidential regimes, in which the president is directly elected, contain term limits. The most common rule is that of two consecutive terms, with no possibility of immediate reelection. Some constitutions, although in the minority, only provide for the possibility of a single term.

The provision for term limits is a recent phenomenon in comparative law that expanded with the new wave of written constitutions that emerged after the Second World War. Its use has increased since the second half of the 20th century. The normative debate on the existence of term limits echoes the classic tension between constitutionalism and democracy. While the position that argues for no limitations on the possibility of successive terms emphasizes the freedom of choice of voters, the opposing thesis, which is currently the majority in descriptive and normative terms, points to the risks of Caesarism, personalism in the exercise of power, and democratic erosion when incumbents are not limited in the possibility of remaining in office. This reasoning arguably does not apply with the same intensity in the case of prime ministers in parliamentary systems because there are other mechanisms to ensure democratic rotation.[2]

Even though periodic elections allow voters to exercise their judgement, this may not be enough to ensure rotation in office. The democratic dangers of a longer or unlimited term are severe: it can increase the political barriers to entry for new competitors, degrade the mechanisms for monitoring power, and encourage the consolidation of power in the hands of the incumbent. This is why many constitutions choose to impose rotation through binding limits.

2. Presidential Term Limits in the Portuguese Constitution

Although term limits are mainly a phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century, the Portuguese Republican Constitution of 1911 already established, in Article 42, the impossibility of reelecting the President in the four years following the mandate. The limits on the renewal of the presidential mandate were abandoned in the 1933 authoritarian Constitution but were reinstated with the return to democracy in 1976. Since 1982, the President has been barred from standing again in the polls immediately following his second term in office and those held in the five years following his resignation.

The Portuguese Constitution thus prohibits reelection for a third straight term. According to the Venice Commission, most constitutions in presidential and semi-presidential systems follow the rule of the Portuguese Constitution, allowing for a single reelection of the President of the Republic.[3]

3. The Portuguese Proposal

In the pending constitutional amendment process,[4] a proposal was put forward to change the term of office of the President of the Republicto a single term of seven years (Article 123).[5] Although the proposal is not justified in the explanatory statement, during the first presentation at the Commission for Constitutional Revision, it was possible to see that the teleology behind it is related to concerns about the stability of the President’s mandate, which will no longer be predictably oriented or conditioned by concerns motivated by reelection. It was stated that “the single mandate generates a more stable and homogeneous practice and behaviour [of the President]”. Indeed, the republican principle will surely also have influenced the drafting of this proposal.

The proposal’s design may have been inspired by Rosalind Dixon and David Landau’s claim that the effect of a strict one-term limit can be measured against the length of presidential terms that globally vary between four and seven years.[6] Whereas Mexico holds a single term of six years, the draft puts forward precisely a seven-year mandate, which coincides with the higher threshold noted by those scholars. The proposal also keeps in place the current limits to reelection in case of resignation but allows future (non-consecutive) reelections.

A minority of constitutions provide for a single term, either with an absolute ban on reelection or a ban only on consecutive terms. That is the case of South Korea (five-year term, presidential system, no possible reelection) and Chile (four-year term, presidential system, reelection is possible only after an intercalated mandate).[7]

4. The Precariousness of Single-Term Presidential Limits

A brief look at some examples of single-term presidential terms raises the hypothesis of the instability of this type of constitutional clause. In Costa Rica, at the request of President Óscar Arias, the Supreme Court invalidated the single presidential term in 2003. The 2007 Turkish constitutional referendum replaced the single seven-year presidential term limit with five-year terms with the possibility of reelection. In Honduras, President Zelaya proposed a non-binding referendum on the possibility of changing this regime, which was part of the material limits of review, and he ended up in exile in 2010 after being removed by the military. Some years later, in 2015, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional clause.[8] President Uribe promoted the amendment of the Colombian Constitution in 2005 to provide for two consecutive terms, although the system previously allowed only one four-year term without possible reelection.[9] Even in South Korea, there is a generalized consensus that a single five-year term is not enough.[10]

5. Conclusion

The unlimited possibility of reelection exposes the political system to potential authoritarian drift. This is why the Venice Commission has systematically criticised constitutional provisions allowing more than one head of state reelection in presidential or semi-presidential systems.

Comparative law shows that the issue of term limits for the head of state in presidential or semi-presidential systems is of the utmost importance. Indeed, although most constitutions in systems of this type contain clauses imposing limits on the possibility of unlimited renewal, these clauses could be more stable. Their validity or maintenance is often contested in the political field or through the courts. As Rosalind Dixon and David Landau point out, “[m]ost commonly, many presidents seek a formal amendment to the term limit; in other cases, they induce courts to reinterpret the term limits or even to excise them entirely from the constitutional order.”[11] These scholars also conclude that “constitutions that now lack term limits often included them.”[12]

Portugal is a successful case of constitutional entrenchment of term limits in a semi-presidential system. The current constitutional design matches the majoritarian solution of allowing a single reelection of the President of the Republic.

The possibility of reelection on the third consecutive term is banned, but there is no absolute ban on future reelection. To date, no attempts or discussions have aimed at eliminating or loosening term limits. On the contrary, the political debate has developed towards strengthening term limits to other types of public offices, such as non-executive roles.[13]

Moreover, the consecutive prohibitions seem to be enough to counter the risks of democratic erosion. In the only case where a former president attempted the third, non-consecutive mandate, he scored third place despite being one of the founding fathers and most charismatic politicians of the democratic regime.

Given the good performance of the current Portuguese regime and the instability of single-presidential terms, a residual clause in comparative law, more reflection should be made before changing the constitutional design.

Suggested citation: Teresa Violante, Portugal’s Proposal for a One-Term Limit on Presidents, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 21, 2023, at: http:/

[1] Mila Versteeg et al., “The Law and Politics of Presidential Term Limit Evasion”, Columbia Law Review, Vol. 120, N0. 1 (January 2020), 173-248.

[2] European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission). Report on Term Limits – Part I – Presidents, 16-17 March 2018, 11, available at

[3] Id.

[4] The process is bound to fail as the President has recently announced the imminent dissolution of Parliament following the resignation of the Prime Minister due to a possible corruption probe.

[5] The proposal also contemplates strengthening the powers of the President in several areas.

[6] Rosalind Dixon & David Landau,“Constitutional End Games: Making Presidential Term Limits Stick”, Hastings Law Journal, vol. 71(2), 2020, 359-418, 403.

[7] Other single-term examples are found in Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Panama, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Vanuatu, Philippines, Israel, Laos, Armenia, and Switzerland. Data collected on “Controlling Power: Presidential Term Limits”, Katiba Institute, 26-42, available at: The current Colombian regime was approved following the decision of President Juan Manuel Santos to reinstate the single four-year term during his second term in office in 2015.

[8] David Landau et al., “Term Limits and the Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendment Doctrine: Lessons from Latin America”, in Alexander Baturo & Robert Elgie (eds.). The Politics of Presidential Term Limits. OUP, 2019, 53-74.

[9] Rosalind Dixon & David Landau, “Transnational Constitutionalism and a Limited Doctrine of Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendment”, International Journal of Constitutional Law, vol. 13, 2015, 606-638, 615.

[10] Mila Versteeg et al., “The Law and Politics…”, cit., 176 and 196.

[11] Rosalind Dixon & David Landau, “Constitutional End Games: Making Presidential Term Limits Stick”, Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 71, Issue 2, 2020, 359-418.

[12] Id. at 372.

[13] The same political party proposes to amend Article 118(2) of the Constitution to read that the “[t]he law may place limits on successive renewals of mandates of holders of political office” instead of “executive political office”.


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