President for life

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Mansu Hill Grand Monument in Pyongyang, depicting "eternal leaders" of North Korea, President Kim Il-sung and General Secretary Kim Jong-il.

President for life is a title assumed by or granted to some presidents to extend their tenure up until their death. The title sometimes confers on the holder the right to nominate or appoint a successor. The usage of the title of "president for life" rather than a traditionally autocratic title, such as that of a monarch, implies the subversion of liberal democracy by the titleholder (although republics need not be democratic per se). Indeed, sometimes a president for life can proceed to establish a self-proclaimed monarchy, such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe in Haiti.

Similarity to a monarch[edit]

A president for life may be regarded as a de facto monarch. In fact, other than the title, political scientists often face difficulties in differentiating a state ruled by a president for life (especially one who inherits the job from a family dictatorship) and a monarchy – indeed, Samoa's long-serving President for life, Malietoa Tanumafili II, was frequently and mistakenly referred to as King. In his proposed plan for government at the United States Constitutional Convention Alexander Hamilton proposed that the chief executive be a governor elected to serve for good behavior, acknowledging that such an arrangement might be seen as an elective monarchy. It was for that very reason that the proposal was rejected. A notable difference between a monarch and a president-for-life is that the successor of the president does not necessarily possess a life-long term, like in Turkmenistan and Samoa.

Most leaders who have proclaimed themselves president for life have not in fact successfully gone on to serve a life term. Most have been deposed long before their death while others achieve a lifetime presidency by being assassinated while in office. However, some have managed to rule until their (natural) deaths, including José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia of Paraguay, Alexandre Pétion of Haiti, Rafael Carrera of Guatemala, François Duvalier of Haiti, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, and Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan. Others made unsuccessful attempts to have themselves named president for life, such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire in 1972.[1]

People frequently cited as being examples of Presidents for Life include very long-serving authoritarian or totalitarian presidents such as Zaire's Mobutu, North Korea's Kim Il-sung, Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, Romania's Nicolae Ceaușescu, Syria's Hafez al-Assad, Indonesia's Suharto, Nationalist China's Chiang Kai-shek, Communist China's Mao Zedong, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Vietnam's Hồ Chí Minh.[citation needed] They were never officially granted life terms and, in fact, underwent periodic renewals of mandate that were in some cases sham elections.[2][3][4] Following the abolition of term limits for the President of the People's Republic of China, the current President Xi Jinping has been identified by some observers as a potential or aspiring President for life, who is also the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the de facto highest position in China without term limit. According to reports from US-funded Freedom House, official election results in Belarus and Russia show implausibly high levels of support (in some cases, unanimous support).[5][6]

In popular culture[edit]

In the film Escape from L.A., the President played by Cliff Robertson is given a life term by a constitutional amendment after an earthquake ravages Los Angeles and leads to the President's shocking electoral victory. At the end of the film, Snake played by Kurt Russell puts an end to his regime when he uses an EMP aiming device remote ending all governments including that of his dictatorship.

Most notable[edit]

Julius Caesar[edit]

One of the most well-known incidents of a republican leader extending his term indefinitely was Roman dictator Julius Caesar, who made himself "Perpetual Dictator" in 45 BC. Traditionally, the office of dictator could only be held for six months, and although he was not the first Roman dictator to be given the office with no term limit, it was Caesar's dictatorship that inspired the string of Roman emperors who ruled after his assassination.

Napoleon Bonaparte[edit]

Caesar's actions would later be copied by the French Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, who was appointed "First Consul for life" in 1802 before elevating himself to the rank of Emperor two years later. Since then, many dictators have adopted similar titles, either on their own authority or having it granted to them by rubber stamp legislatures.

Adolf Hitler[edit]

Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg in January 1933. On Hindenburg's death in August 1934, the German Reichstag voted to (unconstitutionally) merge the offices of President and Chancellor, giving Hitler the title of Führer. Later the Reichstag voted to allow Hitler to hold the positions of Chancellor and Führer for life.

North Korea[edit]

After Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, the North Korean government wrote the presidential office out of the constitution, declaring him "Eternal President" in 1998. Since there can be no succession when the President maintains control through death, the powers of the office were nominally split between the Chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly, the premier, and the chairman of the National Defence Commission. Even though it was not stated by the amended constitution, the Chairman of the National Defense Commission became the de facto highest leadership position and the highest office in the state. In 2009, these powers of the Chairman of the National Defense Commission were realised and the position was designated as the supreme leader of the country.

After Kim Jong-il's death in 2011, he received a similar treatment to his father Kim Il-sung, being declared "Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea" and "Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission". These two positions were abolished and replaced with the First Secretary of the Worker's Party of Korea and the First Chairman of the National Defence Commission respectively, with First Chairman being declared as the supreme leader. Both these positions were filled by Kim Jong-un in 2012. Since 2016, the National Defence Commission was abolished with the State Affairs Commission established in its place. The President of the State Affairs (commission chairman) was placed as the head of state and supreme leader.

The validity and nature of these titles have been raised into question, as Kim Jong-un was elected General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea in January 2021, taking his father's eternal position.

List of leaders who became president for life[edit]

Note: The first date listed in each entry is the date of proclamation of the status as President for Life.

Portrait Name
Country Title Took office Left office Notes
Général Toussaint Louverture.jpg Toussaint Louverture
French Saint-Domingue Governor for Life of Saint-Domingue 1801 1802 Deposed 1802, died in exile in France 1803.
Henri Christophe.jpg Henri Christophe
 Haiti President for Life of Haiti (Northern) 1807 1811 Became King 1811, committed suicide while reigning 1820.
Dr francia.JPG José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia
 Paraguay Perpetual Supreme Dictator of Paraguay 1816 1840 Died in office 1840.
Portrait du président Alexandre Pétion (cropped).jpg Alexandre Pétion
Haiti President for Life of Haiti (Southern) 1816 1818 Died in office 1818.
Président Jean-Pierre Boyer.jpg Jean-Pierre Boyer
President for Life of Haiti 1818 1843 Became President for Life immediately upon assuming the office because Alexandre Pétion's constitution provided for a life presidency for all his successors, deposed 1843, died 1850.
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.jpg Antonio López de Santa Anna
 Mexico President for Life of Mexico 1853 1855 Resigned 1855, died 1876.
Carrerap02.jpg Rafael Carrera
Guatemala President for Life of Guatemala 1854 1865 Died in office 1865.
Tupua Tamasese Meaʻole 1962 (cropped).jpg Tupua Tamasese Meaʻole
 Samoa O le Ao o le Malo for Life of Samoa 1962 1963 Died in office 1963, elected to serve alongside Tanumafili II (see below). The position of O le Ao o le Malo (head of state) is ceremonial; executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister, and Samoa is a parliamentary democracy.[7]
Malietoa Tanumafili II (cropped).jpg Malietoa Tanumafili II
2007 Died in office 2007, elected to serve alongside Meaʻole (see above).[7]
Presiden Sukarno.jpg Sukarno
 Indonesia Supreme Commander, Great Leader of Revolution, Mandate Holder of the Provisional People's Consultative Assembly, and President for Life of Indonesia 1963 1966 Designated as President for Life according to the Ketetapan MPRS No. III/MPRS/1963,[8] life term removed 1966, deposed 1967, died under house arrest 1970.
Kwame Nkrumah (JFKWHP-AR6409-A).jpg Kwame Nkrumah
 Ghana President for Life of Ghana 1964 1966 Ousted in 1966, died in exile in Romania 1972.
Ferdinand Marcos.JPEG Ferdinand Marcos
 Philippines President for Life of the Philippines[Note 1] 1973 1981 Life term removed in 1981, Deposed in 1986, replaced by Corazon Aquino, died in exile in Hawaii, United States in 1989.
Duvalier (cropped).jpg François "Papa Doc" Duvalier
 Haiti President for Life of Haiti 1964 1971 Died in office 1971, named his son as his successor (see below).[9]
Baby Doc (centrée).jpg Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier
1971 1986 Named by his father as successor (see above), deposed 1986, died 2014.
Dr HK Banda, first president of Malawi.jpg Hastings Banda
 Malawi President for Life of Malawi 1971 1993 Life term removed 1993, voted out of office 1994, died 1997.
Bokassa colored.png Jean-Bédel Bokassa
 Central African Republic President for Life of the Central African Republic 1972 1976 Became Emperor 1976 (crowned 1977), deposed 1979, died 1996.
Don Francisco Macias.jpg Francisco Macías Nguema
 Equatorial Guinea President for Life of Equatorial Guinea 1972 1979 Deposed and executed 1979.
Josip Broz Tito uniform portrait.jpg Josip Broz Tito
 Yugoslavia President for Life of Yugoslavia 1974 1980 Appointed as President for Life according to the 1974 Constitution, died in office 1980.
Portrait officiel de Habib Bourguiba.png Habib Bourguiba
Tunisia President for Life of Tunisia 1975 1987 Deposed 1987, died under house arrest 2000.
Idi Amin at UN (United Nations, New York) gtfy.00132 (cropped).jpg Idi Amin
 Uganda (Second Republic) President for Life of Uganda 1976 1979 Deposed 1979, died in exile in Saudi Arabia 2003.
 Ciskei President for Life of Ciskei 1983 1990 Deposed 1990, died 1994.
Saparmurat Niyazov in 2002.jpg Saparmurat Niyazov
 Turkmenistan President for Life of Turkmenistan 1999 2006 Died in office 2006.


  1. ^ Although he never formally claimed the title of President For Life, Marcos used a declaration of martial law (Proclamation No. 1081) to extend his mandate indefinitely beyond the term limits set by the Philippine Constitution of 1935. This was formally done through promulgating a new Constitution in 1973, whose transitional provisions gave Marcos an interim presidential term that would only end when "he calls upon the Interim National Assembly to elect the interim President [who would succeed him]". By the time Marcos made use of this provision in 1981, the constitution was amended to re-establish direct presidential elections. In the ensuing 1981 Philippine presidential election and referendum, Marcos was re-elected for a term of six years.


  1. ^ Crawford Young and Thomas Turner, The Rise and Decline of the Zairian State, p. 211
  2. ^ Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. p. 43. ISBN 9780525574460.
  3. ^ Chivers, C.J. (February 8, 2008). "European Group Cancels Mission to Observe Russian Election, Citing Restrictions". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 31, 2019. Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  4. ^ Kara-Murza, Vladimir Vladimirovich. "As the Kremlin Tightens the Screws, It Invites Popular Revolt". Spotlight on Russia. World Affairs Journal. Archived from the original on July 24, 2017. Retrieved July 24, 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ "Russia". Freedom in the World 2020. Freedom House. 2020. Retrieved May 9, 2019. Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent.
  6. ^ "Belarus". Freedom in the World 2020. Freedom House. 2020. Retrieved May 9, 2019. Belarus is an authoritarian police state in which elections are openly rigged and civil liberties are curtailed. [...] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors noted that longstanding deficiencies in Belarusian elections were unaddressed, including a restrictive legal framework, media coverage that fails to help voters make informed choices, irregularities in vote counting, and restrictions on free expression and assembly during the campaign period. The group concluded that the elections fell considerably short of democratic standards.
  7. ^ a b "Constitution of the Independent State of Western Samoa 1960". University of the South Pacific. Archived from the original on 8 July 2007. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
  8. ^ "Ketetapan MPRS No. III/MPRS/1963".
  9. ^ The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought: Abol-impe. Oxford University Press. 2010-01-01. p. 328. ISBN 9780195334739.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mngomezulu, Bhekithemba Richard (2013). The President for Life Pandemic: Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi. Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd. ISBN 9781909112315.

External links[edit]