Age of PMs and presidents upon assuming the position, in new and old democracies

Would we expect the executive format (presidential, parliamentary, etc.) to affect the age at which an executive leader assumes office?

I might expect either no effect (too many other variables might swamp the format) or a positive effect of PMs. We know that prime ministers tend to have more “insider” experience (e.g. as cabinet minister, legislator, etc.) than presidents have. It takes time to get experience, so prime ministers might tend to be older.

However, exploring the data a little bit, what we actually see is the reverse. PMs tend to be younger. The effect is stronger in “third wave” democracies than in a set of both older and newer democracies. ((The president-vs.-PM effect gets slightly stronger when executives of semi-presidential systems are included, but what is shown here are the data from pure-format systems.)) The effects are statistically significant, though somewhat less so when the older democracies are included.

Why? An “older statesman” effect, whereby voters are more likely to elect older candidates? A compensation effect by parties whereby, aware of an electoral advantage in nominating relatively less “insider” politicians, they select older candidates whose “type” might be better revealed compared to those who are both outsider and young?

That prime ministers tend to be younger in parliamentary systems of the third wave than in older democracies might mean that political careers overall start younger when the democracy is younger. We already found (Samuels and Shugart, 2013; see prior link) that there is no observable difference in length of prior legislative experience of third-wave parliamentary PMs compared to those in older parliamentary democracies. But there is a difference in average age of PMs across eras. ((If we compare only older democracies, PMs do tend to be older than presidents. But the effect is not close to significant.))

So, to summarize, it seems that parties in parliamentary democracies in the third wave are promoting politicians to the top job who are younger than their counterparts in older democracies (but not less experienced as legislators). In presidential systems, on the other hand, in both new and old democracies there is a tendency for successful presidential candidates to be somewhat, and significant statistically, older.

There is, by the way, no time trend. That is, neither type of executive tends to start office older (or younger) as the democratic regime itself becomes older.

Data summaries (average age at start of tenure); all tests exclude executives who started their tenure before the date the regime became democratic (though the effects work even if these few politicians are included).

Third-wave, pure-format, democracies
Pres: 56.3 (n=84)
PMs: 51.1 (n=109)

Third-wave and older pure-format democracies together
Pres: 56.0 (n=148)
PMs: 54.7 (n=399)

Parliamentary PMs in older and newer democracies
Not third wave: 55.97 (n=290)
Third wave: 51.1 (n=109)

Based on the Samuels and Shugart biographical data.

17 thoughts on “Age of PMs and presidents upon assuming the position, in new and old democracies

  1. In our data set, the oldest executive at time of assuming the position is Luis Alberto Sanchez. He was 89 when he was appointed PM in Peru (a semi-presidential system) in 1989.


  2. Nicely timed post, MSS – Italy has just re-elected Giorgio Napolitano, 87, as its president:

    This creates the possibility that a well-timed al Qaeda strike (may all applicable deities forfend) could – if it takes out not only the President and Veep but also both presiding officers and 11 non-Acting Cabinet members – leave the US with a President Napolitano at the same time.


  3. Actually, it was a discussion of Napolitano that prompted me to look at the data.

    (Non-elected presidents in parliamentary systems are not included in the above analysis.)


  4. How are presidents counted in systems where the president combines both jobs? Shouldn’t this be a third category?

    I assume most of the presidents included are not directly elected, or elected by however you categorize whatever the US system is. Maybe this is sufficient to explain the effect? The politicians are selecting older presidents, in large part because the post is seen as a semi-retirement sinecure, plus, and this is related, its a way to push older retired politicians towards retirement.

    I think the effect would be stronger if instead of presidents, you looked at non-hereditary heads of state equivalents in parliamentary systems, which means including the governor-generals in Commonwealth countries that have retained the monarchy, and arguably also the position of Lord Chancellor (whatever the office is now called) in the UK.


  5. JD, if you know of a data source for age limits, I’m happy to look into it. However, I’d be surprised if it made much difference. Most presidents are well over any age limits I am aware of. I doubt it’s as if there is demand for younger executives being pent up behind age limits. Still, it’s a good point.

    Ed, if the executive originates from the parliamentary majority and survives contingent on the latter’s confidence, it is “prime minister” regardless of title, or whether the occupant is simultaneously head of state.

    All “presidents” in this data set are popularly elected, most directly.


  6. And, of course, the data are publicly posted, so anyone can recode a variable, or add a new one, and test his or her favorite hypothesis!


  7. In a quick attempt to get at JD’s point, I re-ran the difference-of-means test with the “left” end of the data truncated at 40 for both executive types. The difference still holds.

    Doing this raises the mean age of PMs to 53.9 (from 51.1) and barely changes that of presidents (56.8). The difference remains significant (p=.027). These results refer to third-wave, pure-format executives. The basic president/PM distinctions still hold if we include semi-presidential systems (either presidents or all executives).

    Without truncating, the youngest president in the third-wave sample is 39, and the 25th percentile is 41. The youngest PM is 31, and the 25th percentile is 34.

    The youngest PM in a pure-type system is Pandeli Majko (Albania, 1998), although Branko Crvenkovski, at the tender age of 30, is the real champion if we include semi-presidential premiers (Macedonia, 1992). The youngest presidents in pure presidential systems are Jaime Roldós Aguilera (Ecuador, 1979) and Elías Antonio Saca González (El Salvador, 2004), age 39. For semi-presidential systems, the champion is Alan Garcia (Peru, 1985), 36.

    Interestingly, our dataset shows no executive of either type, under any format, under 40 in a pre-third-wave democracy, except for Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal in Somalia (a parliamentary then-democracy) in 1960.


  8. Pingback: Chris Hanretty

  9. I’ve done a quick analysis combining this data with information from the Comparative Constitutions Project. You can find it on my website (click on my commenter name below). There’s no minimum-age-requirement effect (though I find no significant presidential effect either). I’ve included R code for those that are curious.


  10. Too bad I am not R-literate (I’m still a Stata kind of guy). But thanks much, Chris!

    From the results you posted at your website, it looks like you did not restrict to the Third Wave democracies. As I noted in the post, I find the effect of executive type and format much stronger for the Third Wave (though I do find one for all periods in the dataset).

    I should note that my DV is the decimal log of age, although I still get a significant effect without the logged DV. Probably one should use GLS (as David and I did in our article), but OLS works fine.

    It is interesting that you find an effect of the “order” in which the executive appears within the democracy (in Model 2). This is another way to get at the time variable. I tried Age of Democracy (in years, logged) and found no effect. (Using the latter variable was in keeping with what we use in the Democratization article, where the dependent variable is Legislative Service in years, logged, and there is a highly significant effect of Age of Democracy in parliamentary systems, but much less in presidential.)


  11. My own, idiosyncratic, stipulative usage is to reserve “President” for the hands-on chief executive sort while using “Head of State” as a catch-all for ribbon-cutting Presidents, ribbon-cutting Monarchs and ribbon-cutting Governors/ Governors-General/ Lieutenant Governors who normally follow the advice of a Prime Minister/ Premier/ Chancellor. When discussing governmental systems in the abstract, it saves time (“The Head of State can dissolve the lower or sole house of the legislature if it cannot agree on a majority government”, “the President’s veto can be overturned by Congress”, etc).

    Somewhat more attuned to actually existing usage is “Congress” for a legislature that exists alongside an executive, hands-on president and “Parliament” for one that hires and/or fires a Prime Minister.

    As for mixed systems such as premier-presidential, perhaps one could make a judgment call as to whether the President is a “President” in the strict sense above, or “merely” a “Head of State”.

    France, for example, has settled since 1986 that it’s the President who ultimately runs the government. (Before cohabitation, there was, I recall, a good deal of media and academic discussion as to who would win this particular thumb-wrestle under the Fifth Republic’s constitution as amended. Numerous scholars and journalists even predicted that the PM would remain in charge – after all, the 1958 Constitution made that clear, and surely a mere change to direct presidential elections couldn’t disrupt a century of parliamentary cabinet government! But now, it’s a stretch even to remember who is France’s PM at any given time, and the reduction of the presidential term from 7 years to 5 is a recognition that the Elysee runs the executive).

    Finland, though, is still a closer call…


  12. You’ almost wonder if semi-presidential systems have a longterm tendency to collapse into one of the purer forms? I wonder if MSS included the Vatican in his dataset as an example of an assembly-independent autocracy.


  13. Tom, the distinction between active presidents and ceremonial “head of state” that you propose makes sense. We really do need a different term for elected heads of government or elected heads of state that often act as de-facto heads of government, on the one hand, and the unelected and usually not very active heads of state found in some parliamentary republics.

    In semi-presidential systems, I would not be keen to move towards case-specific “judgement calls”; the purely institutional one is usually sufficient: which one is elected and which one is responsible to the parliamentary majority? I have no problem with an additional criterion specifying that the elected “president” actually can do something, but it gets slippery to define what, to use Duverger’s (1980) term, “considerable powers” are. The most troubling cases for classifications that do/do not take account of powers of the elected executive are Ireland and Austria. Maybe also Finland since its most recent reforms, as you note. For most cases, the strict institutional definition poses no real problems. This is a theme David and I take up at length in our 2010 book. Elgie also has discussed it extensively both in his published works and at his blog.

    Alan, I don’t see evidence that the hybrid types collapse into a pure type in the long run, though I think John Gerring has suggested some such possibility.

    There actually are interesting institutional parallels between assembly-independent designs and authoritarian systems of reciprocal accountability in which the chief is not subject to removal (e.g. Vatican and post-2002 PRC).

    We seem to have drifted rather far from the topic of impact of institutions on executive ages. Oh, well.


  14. At the risk of keeping this thread off the topic! I think we already have plenty of ways of distinguishing between stronger and weaker presidents – the Shugart and Carey scores and the Siaroff presidential power scores being foremost among them. For example, we could agree to call presidents who score below a certain threshold heads of state. However, what we really need is a more dynamic set of such scores. Alan’s index is really useful here because it tries to capture ‘actual’ and not just constitutional powers. So, what we need is not just a score for France since 1963, but France’s presidential power score from 1981-86, 1986-88, etc. Is Hollande as powerful as Sarkozy using this measure? In other words, we need scores to capture such changes and to be updated regularly. Let’s argue over whether France is a 5 or a 6 under Sarkozy on Alan’s measure rather than whether France is premier-presidential or something else. If we had reliable time series scores that captured changes in actual presidential power, then we could test more systematically to see whether presidential power really made a difference to particular outcomes. Apologies, maybe this should have gone in a different thread.


  15. Maybe ‘dirigent’ would work for chiefs of state who exercise more than ceremonial functions and ‘president’ could be kept for ceremonial leaders. The problem with ‘head of state’ is that it includes any number of people from the president of the United States to the king of Tonga.


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