Non-partisan presidents

There is a wide agreement among political scientists that political parties fulfil a crucial role in democracies. They nominate candidates, coordinate election campaigns, aggregate interests, formulate and implement policy proposals, and manage government power. Yet various democracies around the world have experienced non-partisan presidents.

The website worldstatesmen.org is a unique data source which provides us with information about the party affiliation of presidents. According to its founder, Ben Cahoon, non-partisan presidents are “those who were not affiliated with a political party at the time of taking office.” Here we are interested in presidents of presidential and semi-presidential systems. So, presidents of parliamentary regimes are excluded from our list. The chart below provides an overview of the number of non-partisan presidents in consolidated democracies[1], sorted by continent.

Number of non-partisan presidents in presidential and semi-presidential democracies between 1990-2013

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Source: World Statesmen: http://worldstatesmen.org/

We found the highest number of non-partisan presidents in Europe. In total 18 non-partisan candidates were elected president in European consolidated democracies between 1990 and 2013. It should be noted that all non-partisan presidents were elected in third, or better, fourth-wave democracies.[2] Indeed, we did not find any non-partisan president in the so-called bastions of democracy in Western Europe. In addition, all of these new democratic states adopted a semi-presidential system.[3]

In Asia we found four non-partisan presidents. Three of them were elected in semi-presidential Timor-Leste. The other was elected in presidential South Korea.

In Africa, three non-partisan presidents were elected: one in a presidential democracy, Benin, and two in semi-presidential regimes, namely São Tomé and Príncipe and Mali. In South America two presidential democracies, Bolivia and Ecuador, have experienced a non-partisan president. The only country that experienced a non-partisan president in North America was Guatemala, a presidential democracy. In Australia/Oceania all countries have adopted a parliamentary regime. These non-partisan presidents have been excluded from our list.

All in all, out of a total of 223 presidents who were elected between 1990 and 2013, 29 (13%) presidents were not affiliated to a political party. In Europe 26% of all presidents were non-partisan.

What do these numbers tell us? They demonstrate that the election of a non-partisan president is a relatively rare phenomenon in all continents but Europe. In Europe, more than a quarter of the elected presidents is non-partisan. The election of a non-partisan president may affect crucial matters like democratic representation. To be sure, non-partisan presidents are not accountable to a political party during their time of office. Worse still, when such presidents do not wish to get re-elected, they are free to act according to their own wishes. Yet, their existence has been largely ignored in the literature. More research is therefore needed on the effect of non-partisan presidents on the quality of democracy.


[1] A democracy is considered consolidated if it scores at least 5 on the Polity IV scale for five or more consecutive years.

[2] Doorenspleet, R. (2005) Democratic Transitions: Exploring the Structural Sources of the Fourth Wave. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

[3] The web site “The semi-presidential one” provides a list of countries with a presidential and semi-presidential constitution.

2 thoughts on “Non-partisan presidents

  1. Emin Dedeoglu

    Dear Sir,

    You define non partisan as “those who were not affiliated with a political party at the time of taking office.” And it seems non partisan presidential systems are minority in EU and World. I wonder in partisan presidential systems, is the president, after taking office continues its party affiliation (exactly as before) during his/her tenure as president?

    Reply
    1. Lydia Beuman

      Partisan presidents are, indeed, more the rule than the exception in (semi) presidential systems. Under some constitutions, the president needs to run as an independent candidate, like in most Portuguese-speaking countries. This is because presidents are supposed to represent the nation rather than partisan interests. Partisan presidents formally do not need stick to the party line. As a rule of the thumb, however, partisan presidents are more likely to deviate from the party line during the second term (most presidents cannot run for a third term). See also: Samuels, D. J. and M. S. Shugart (2010). Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Powers Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

      Reply

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