New Italian PM Matteo Renzi has never served in the national legislature or cabinet (till now), and is only 39. These are unusual characteristics. Usually parliamentary parties prefer to “vet” their executive talent for a while through having them serve in the legislature and/or cabinet before being elevated to the top job (much more so than in presidential systems, where the candidate for the top job has to be able to win a plurality or majority as an individual–see Samuels and Shugart, 2010, 2014).
How common is it for the head of government of a parliamentary democracy to be as young and inexperienced as Renzi? Some insight comes from the Executives Biographical data of Samuels and Shugart. Here I offer some lists selected with intent to compare Renzi to other PMs. Caveat: in addition to being post-WWII only, the dataset ends with 2005. I won’t be updating it any time soon, but of course I would welcome readers’ additions via comments to this entry.
The first list (Dropbox link) is of all the parliamentary PMs in the dataset who had never served in the legislature before, along with how many years they had served in the cabinet prior to becoming PM (yrscab) and their age when starting their stint as PM (agestart). The list contains only 24 names–these are all the PMs in parliamentary systems who had no prior legislative service. That’s out of 411 total. So lack of legislative experience is quite rare. Exactly one of them was younger than Renzi is now (Vasile Petru Tarlev of Moldova, 38 when he took the job in 2001). Several on this list can be explained through newness of the democratic regime itself (e.g. Mandela) or immediate post-war years. You will note the multiple appearances of a few countries* on the list, including… Italy.
A second list has all parliamentary prime ministers who assumed the position before the age of 40. It is also a short list, and it is heavily dominated by young democracies, mainly in Central-Eastern Europe. It looks like our youth champion is Pandeli Majko of Albania, 31 when he assumed the job in 1998, followed by Mart Laar of Estonia, 32 when he became PM in 1992; Laar began a second stint seven years later, when he was still about the age of Renzi now. We also see from the list that, despite their youth, some of these PMs had considerable experience already in the legislature (e.g. Felix Gaillard of France, 10 years**) and a few had cabinet service (e.g. Stanislav Gross of the Czech Republic and Aigars Kalvitis, 4 years each).
One more list of background relevant to Renzi: how common is it for a PM to have been a mayor, but not a legislator or cabinet minister before elevation to the top job? Renzi might be only the third (see caveat above), following Jirí Paroubek of the Czech Republic (2005) and Jawaharlal Nehru of India (1947, the year of Indian independence). Upon assuming office, Paroubek was 53 and Nehru 58.***
So Renzi’s combination of youth and inexperience, aside from having been mayor of a major city (Florence), is indeed unusual.
Previous related post: Age of PMs and presidents upon assuming the position, in new and old democracies.
* There are five Netherlands PMs on this list, which is a bit surprising. Service in the senate, perhaps? And that makes me wonder if we counted service in the Italian senate, which we should have, given it has confidence powers over the cabinet, unlike most other second chambers.
** Ilir Meta of Albania, 15 years service as MP, is, I am sorry to say, a mistake in the data! He was born in 1969, elected to parliament in 1992, and became PM in 1999 (not 2001, as the list indicates), according to an online bio.
*** Nehru was a mayor? That is what the dataset says. According to Wikipedia, he was elected chairman of the Allahabad Municipal Board in 1923. (Yes, students, I can use Wikipedia. This is a blog post.)