What are the most successful young democracies

Democracy as a generation issue : What the age of politicians reveals about their country

Michael Bröning is a member of the SPD Fundamental Values ​​Commission and head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in New York.

When the moderator asked in the crucial TV debate in the 1984 US presidential election whether Reagan was 73 years old not too old to take office, he replied with a sentence for the history books: he refused to make age a campaign issue and thus the "youth and inexperience" of the opposing candidate "to use for political purposes".

The Democratic competitor, who was more than 20 years his junior, was left speechless and Reagan scored a landslide victory.

With Joe Biden (78) the USA now has the oldest president in its history. The same development can also be seen in large parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Since the 1950s, the average age of leaders around the world has risen, data from the University of Tennessee shows. The average age has increased by more than two years since 1950 - to an impressive 64 years today.

Can the interests of young people still be heard? Isn't the world threatened by a gerontocracy?

[If you want to have all the latest news live on your mobile phone, we recommend our completely redesigned app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices.]

At least in Europe, the opposite is more the case. There can be no question of the rule of the elderly at the level of the heads of state and government. Since the 1950s, the average age in the OECD has fallen from over 60 to 54 today. Sebastian Kurz became Austrian Chancellor at 31, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin took over the government at 34, and Emmanuel Macron moved to the Elysée Palace at 39. And just last week, Estonia elected 43-year-old Kaja Kallas to head the government.

The political success of the young is seen by progressive forces as a signal of new beginnings and progress. This may apply in individual cases, but as a trend, general enthusiasm about young decision-makers is as little justified as worrying about old ones. Last but not least, Europe's right-wing parties from Denmark, Belgium and France to Spain are ultimately largely supported by young party careerists.

In older societies, young politicians are good for the party's image

But what are the reasons for the success of the young guard on the old continent? And how can the insistence of the ancients be explained elsewhere?

One thing is clear: there is no shortage of culturalist explanations. In this reading it is simply due to the dominance of traditional values, which have been overcome in Europe, but for example in Asian and African ballots to drive the ancients to vote. In fact, however, electoral research does not provide a uniform picture here. It simply shows that voters tend to prefer candidates who are as old as they are. Age preference is far less important than ideological issues.

[With the “Twenty / Twenty” newsletter, our US experts will accompany you every Thursday after the election until the transfer of power in the White House. You can register for free here: tagesspiegel.de/twentytwenty. ]

A look at the political system and the role that parties play in theirs is therefore more promising. There are clear indications that systems with rather strong political parties offer better starting conditions for young candidates than presidential systems. The reason: Especially parties in older societies try to modernize their own image by consciously promoting young top people.

Following on from this, however, it can be seen that the rejuvenation in top European politics can also be seen as a symptom of crisis. After all, it proves the disappointment of many voters with the established political forces. The meteoric rise of Emanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz also contains at least a populist dimension.

Age issues are becoming more and more important

Or is it the communication? In this reading, younger candidates who internalized the rules of the net and especially in Western media democracies have an advantage. The ambivalence, however, is obvious: if speed and agility alone are decisive in social debates, this is an asset for “digital natives”, but not for democratic decision-making as a whole.

The advantage of the online expertise of young leaders in Europe is a disadvantage elsewhere. In current elections in African democracies, at least - most recently in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Ghana - the online sophistication of young candidates could hardly be converted into success, analyzes Joseph Adebayo, who deals with elections at the University of Cape Town.

He is convinced that young candidates in particular have relied too heavily on online methods and neglected direct communication and personal mobilization.

These references cannot conclusively clarify this contradiction between young Africa and old Europe. But they lead to the expectation that the role of old age and youth in democratic disputes of the future will rather continue to grow. The approach of not instrumentalizing age issues “for political purposes” is unlikely to be feasible any more than it was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan's denial of the age issue proved to be a clever instrumentalization.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page