Editorials

The age of gerontocracy: are senior leaders a solution or part of the problem?

The scene 'Checkmate to the planet', which represents presidents of USA, Joe Biden (L), Russia, Vladimir Putin (R) and China, Xi Jinping (C), is one of the 2022 themes of the Fallas Festival in Valencia, Spain, 16 March 2022.
© EPA-EFE/Juan Carlos Cardenas   |   The scene 'Checkmate to the planet', which represents presidents of USA, Joe Biden (L), Russia, Vladimir Putin (R) and China, Xi Jinping (C), is one of the 2022 themes of the Fallas Festival in Valencia, Spain, 16 March 2022.

Holzstock Festival

From the USA to China and Russia, from India to the Middle East, political leaders are over 70. Can they still make use of their experience to their advantage, or are they unable to adapt and have thus become a source of problems?

The Biden-Trump debate and the debate on the aging American political elite

The Biden-Trump confrontation produced a lot of controversy in the USA, after the former appeared too tired and the latter too talkative, serving the audience one lie after another: experts counted over 30 false statements.

It was an unusual debate, deemed strategic by Democrat Joe Biden's campaign staff. Never in the history of the US presidential election have these meetings been held in the middle of summer. There are typically three debates organized in September and October. The goal of the Democratic camp was to prove that the incumbent president, aged 81, who will presumably run for a second term as president, still has full control of his faculties. However, tormented by fatigue and a cold, as the spokeswoman of the White House told an ensuring press briefing, Joe Biden did not live up to expectations. On the contrary, he confirmed the speculations of those who see him as a “veteran" who needs to step down. But Joe Biden is not going to withdraw from the presidential race, despite the growing number of voices, both among the Democrats and their supporters, who are more or less openly asking for it - see, for instance, the appeal launched by the editorial board of the influential New York Times.

On the other hand, Joe Biden's Republican opponent, Donald Trump, who is only three years “younger” than the president, is not an ideal replacement either. Yes, he did win the debate in terms of the energy he displayed and the coherence of his discourse, but not in terms of the points he delivered. Trump also claimed a major victory in court when the Supreme Court granted him partial immunity in the Capitol assault case, which will be tried after the election. However, Trump does not have immunity from prosecution in the criminal investigation into the accounting records Trump allegedly forged in order to hide payments made to silence the adult industry star Stormy Daniels. Trump became the first former American president to be convicted of felony crimes, and the sentence will be handed down on July 11, 4 days before the Republican Convention where Trump is expected to be nominated as the Republican candidate for the White House race.

For the first time in US history, voters are faced with an impossible choice. Beyond America's domestic issues, the world's most powerful nation can only deliver a geriatric political class to American voters. President Biden is the ninth oldest leader in the world and the oldest president in American history. The chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus is 73 years old. His Republican counterpart is 81. In 2021, the average age of members of the US Congress was over 64, making it the oldest legislature in US history. A recent poll conducted by ABC News shows that 73% of Americans agree with introducing an age limit for holding various public offices.

Is Washington mesmerized by the “wisdom” of these leaders? Their age might not matter if their idea of leadership wasn’t just as old. How did it come to this? Unlike elsewhere in the world, the American political system allows politicians to stay in office because, fundamentally, their status brings campaign funds and money remains extremely important for American politics. For young aspiring politicians, it feels like fighting a losing battle.

Xi and Putin, septuagenarians who live in the past and want to bring it back to life

The United States is not the only country in the world with gerontocratic leadership. Let's take a look at the rival superpowers China and Russia, which for several years have been increasingly consolidating a genuine “axis of evil”, trying to recruit as many international actors hostile to democratic values ​​and the West as possible.

XI Jinping is 70 years old, and so is Vladimir Putin. Old people with old ideas. Two years ago, I wrote for Veridica that the Beijing leader made sure he will stay in power for life, becoming a second Mao. I predicted China will amp up its repression at home and its aggression at global level, precisely what we’re witnessing today. If one could account for the endurability of gerontocracy in a democratic country by invoking the electorate's need for stability, in an authoritarian country, however, things are different. Xi Jinping came from nothing, so to speak, and kept climbing the party and political ladder, making sure to mold the elites around him to his own liking. The same is true of Putin. They both live in the past, yearning for things from the past. For them, the present, i.e. young people or responsible citizens, are nothing but a maneuverable mass that must be put in the service of these “truths” from the past century. Vladimir Putin, who killed hundreds of thousands of young Russians whom he sent to fight in Ukraine under false pretenses, is completely detached from reality. Even those close to Putin share the dictator's vision. Gennady Nikolayevich Timchenko, a friend of Putin since the 90s, is 71 years old. He holds no position in the Russian state apparatus, but he is the head of one of the important companies in the war economy. So is Igor Sechin, the former deputy Prime Minister, now 63 years old, who is the chairman of Rosneft. To say nothing of Nikolai Patrushev, 72, who is currently Putin's adviser tasked with developing Arctic routes. He was one of the major supporters of the invasion of Ukraine. Patrushev has known Putin since the 70s, when they worked together in the counterintelligence division of the KGB in Leningrad. To Russian people, gerontocracy is nothing new. During the USSR there was a joke even told by the then American president, Ronald Reagan, himself in his seventies: “How am I supposed to reach an agreement with the Russians if their presidents keep dying?”

Even the great emerging powers are not faring any better at the moment. Narendra Modi, who has just won a new term as the Prime Minister of India, pushing the country closer to ​​Hindu nationalism and making it increasingly hard for Muslims to find a place for themselves, has turned 73. Brazil’s president, Lula da Silva, is 78.

The Middle East: leaders past their prime, unable to break the logic of authoritarianism and fighting

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, which for several decades has had increasingly aging sovereigns (its current king, Salman bin Saud, is 88) is preparing for a change of leadership. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who for the last few years has been already seen as the country's de facto leader, is only 38 years old and is possibly heading towards a decade-long reign. Bin Salman wants to reinvent his oil-rich kingdom. He has already implemented social reforms that would have seemed unimaginable in Saudi Arabia prior to his coming to power. For instance, women have been allowed to drive cars for 6 years already. Across the Gulf, in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to exercise firm control over the country despite his age (85). There is much talk surrounding Khamenei's successor, who may be several decades younger, but the conservative religious establishment will remain unchanged, and the waves of protests of recent years and the declining turnout of Iranians in elections show that the establishment is increasingly disconnected from a much younger population.

At the opposite pole, in the heart of the seemingly never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaders who fail to get along are way past their second youth. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is 74 years old, and the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is 88. Both bear the scars of old confrontations, and it seems quite difficult for them to imagine a world where things are different. Neither encouraged the shaping of a young political class, capable of taking over the leadership of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, respectively. Neither shows signs of taking a step back. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the time of reckoning has come: his 6th cabinet is almost out the door, a patchwork of extremist and religious parties Netanyahu came up with just to stay in power, adding to which is political turmoil generated by the war waged against Hamas.

In Israel’s immediate vicinity, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who brought his country to the brink of a devastating civil war, is somewhat younger, shy of 60. Elected president when he was in his thirties, Assad built up his regime with the help of his father's “old guard”. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the representative of the new generation of Egyptian leaders who replaced the “mummies” of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which is how the Egyptians used to refer to the leaders of the former regime, is coming in to 70. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who pushed Turkey towards authoritarianism and an increasingly complicated relationship with NATO and the EU, has already turned 70.

If you don’t have an elder to turn to, go buy yourself one. Not a second-rate one though!

Europe seems to be largely resisting this trend. At EU level, the average age of the people holding the top four management positions will drop significantly with the departure of Josep Borrell and his replacement with Kaja Kallas. Ursula von der Leyen would be, in the new EU roster, their senior, aged 65.

Individual nations are also experimenting with young leaders. I am referring to France in particular, where President Macron was 39 years old when he arrived at the Elysee. Prior to the European Parliament election, when the National Assembly was dissolved, France had a 34-year-old Prime Minister. The political leadership of Ireland and Georgia has an average age of 45. The Finnish Prime Minister was 34 years old when she was elected to office.

Are young people better at running countries than their parents or grandparents? They certainly have their youth and energy to speak for them. They are imaginative and willing to try what no one before them has dared. Does their lack of experience outweigh all these strengths? The debate is ongoing.

The stereotype of the ideal national leader is, metaphorically speaking, a grizzle-bearded man with a wealth of experience, a pillar of stability and continuity. Admittedly, throughout history, peoples have sought stability, primarily through their leaders. The world we live in today, however, a world troubled by conflicts, wars, social division, needs reaction speed and flexibility. Science has shown that, as we age, our physical and cognitive abilities diminish. In precisely such a context, geriatrics seem to hold the reins of the world. They are the ones who decide the fate of the world and of young people in particular. There’s an old Romanian saying that “if you don’t have an elder to turn to, go buy yourself one”, particularly in troubled times like these. I completely agree, but don’t go for a second-rate one!

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