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Jakarta Post

[COMMENTARY] Saving democracy in countries for old men

  • M. Taufiqurrahman
    M. Taufiqurrahman

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, November 4, 2020   /   08:57 am
[COMMENTARY] Saving democracy in countries for old men This combination of pictures created on Oct. 30, 2020 shows United States Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden waves to supporters before speaking at a Drive-In rally at Dallas High School, in Dallas, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 24, 2020, and US President Donald Trump arrives to hold a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns in Gastonia, North Carolina, on Oct. 21, 2020. (Agence France Presse/Saul Loeb, Angela Weiss)

M. Taufiqurrahman

Whoever wins the United States presidential election, either Joe Biden or Donald Trump will set a new record as the oldest person to be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2021.

At 78 years old, Biden would be the oldest person to be inaugurated as US president in a first term, while Trump would be the oldest politician to be sworn in for a second term (Trump would beat Ronald Reagan as the oldest person to win office in a second term in January 1985).

The executive branch of the government is not the only place where old folks sit at the top in the US. If the Republican Party can maintain its control of the Senate in the wake of the 2020 election (which looks increasingly implausible), its majority leader Mitch McConnell will be 81 years old while his counterpart Nancy Pelosi, who will likely keep her job as House majority leader will be 79 years old.

Democracy in America may be the oldest in the world, but the country’s population is relatively young and that should have been reflected in the make-up of its ruling class. Last year, millennials, those aged between 23 and 38, outnumbered Baby Boomers. Yet, those 73 million millennials failed to bring younger politicians like Pete Buttigieg or Andrew Yang to the finish line in the presidential primaries.

It appears that gerontocracy, government based on rule by old people, has become a fact of life in the US, and in a large part of our world.

Wherever we look today, including in many globally strategic countries, old geezers are sitting at the top, running the show and keeping things in order.

In Japan, when current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga came into power in early September, he was 71 years old and became the oldest premier to take office since Kiichi Miyazawa in 1991. In a country where the population is rapidly aging, Suga looks like the safest choice.

Another septuagenarian currently in office is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was born in September 1950. And after being inaugurated for a second term in 2019, Modi is now set to become the fourth-longest serving prime minister of India.

Closer to home in Malaysia, we have what is literally a power struggle between oldsters, including one politician who a while ago broke the record as the oldest person ever to be elected as a prime minister.

Currently a political battle is brewing between incumbent Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, 73, and fellow septuagenarian Anwar Ibrahim to win control of the Malaysian government. Earlier in October, Anwar met with the Malaysian king to deliver a claim that he had a sufficient majority to run a government.

This political fight broke in the wake of a brief stint by Mahathir Mohamad, now 95 years old, who served as prime minister following the upset victory of his opposition coalition in 2018.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has not ruled out the option of running for president again in 2024 and if he does run, and if he won the election, he would be 73 when he gets sworn in for the first term. And if and when Prabowo decides to run he would have to navigate his way around the country’s most powerful kingmaker, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Soekarnoputri, who would be 77 by then.

Before you accuse this writer of ageism or harboring a prejudice against the elderly, I have to admit as a member of Generation X, I am really happy to see older folks, especially Boomers in charge of things, because it means that we can step away from the limelight and step up to fix things only when necessary, as Gen-Xers always prefer to do.

Yet, there are real problems with having too many old people taking charge of politics. For one, cognitive function declines dramatically on average after the age of 70. And to make matters worse, the type of intelligence that deteriorates the most is the “capacity to absorb large amounts of new information and data in a short time span and apply it to solve problems.”

There are also problems that could come from these old politicians basing their policies on some old ideas that seemed to work in the good old days. We can suspect that the word “again” in Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” refers to America in the fifties when the white population was still a majority. (The same could be said about Modi’s Hindu nationalism, which longs for the glorious day prior to the arrival of Islam and Christianity in the subcontinent).

But before we dismiss this lurch toward gerontocracy, we should be realistic enough to see that in times of great transformation like today, maybe, just maybe, tapping these wheezing geezers to lead is the best option.

What older politicians lack in idealism they can make up for in experience and hopefully, wisdom (Joe Biden appears to have much of it). One American artist likes to put it this way: “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth”.

Malaysia showed that the best means of kicking out a corrupt government is by allowing a nonagenarian politician to lead a political movement and if the best chance of beating fascism in America is by voting in a 78-year-old establishment figure, then so be it.


Editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post