Ireland – Referendum on the minimum age of presidential candidates

In May, Ireland will hold two referendums. One is on marriage equality, or same-sex marriage. The other is on the minimum age of presidential candidates. Here, the focus is on the second issue.

In January 2013 the issue of the length of the president’s term was debated at the first session of Ireland’s Constitutional Convention. There was a long discussion as to whether the president’s term should be reduced from seven years to five years. In the end, this proposal was rejected by 57 votes to 43. However, a number of other presidential issues emerged during the course of the main debate and some were also put to a vote. A one-term presidency was overwhelmingly rejected. The proposal that citizens should be able to nominate presidential candidates was almost unanimously adopted. In addition, a proposal to reduce the minimum age for presidential candidates from the current figure of 35 was narrowly adopted by 50 votes to 47.

Following the Convention’s proceedings, the official report of the meeting was sent to the government. Now, it has been decided that the one presidential issue that will go forward to the people is the reduction in the minimum age of the president. The proposal is that the minimum age should be reduced to 21.

So, where do things stand at the moment? These tables compare the minimum age of presidential candidates in European countries for which I have been able to find information. If you have information about other countries, or if I have made any errors, then please let me know.

Among the set of countries with directly elected presidents, here is the situation:

Country – Direct election Constitution or Law Age
Austria Constitution 35
Bulgaria Constitution 40
Croatia Law 18
Czech Republic Constitution 40
France Law 18
Georgia Constitution 35
Iceland Constitution 35
Ireland Constitution 35
Lithuania Constitution 40
Macedonia Constitution 40
Montenegro Law 18
Poland Constitution 35
Portugal Constitution 35
Romania Constitution 35
Serbia Law 18
Slovakia Constitution 40
Slovenia Constitution 18
Turkey Constitution 40
Ukraine Constitution 35

This is the situation for the set of countries with indirectly elected presidents:

Country – Indirect election Constitution or Law Age
Albania Constitution 40
Estonia Constitution 40
Germany Constitution 40
Greece Constitution 40
Hungary Constitution 35
Italy Constitution 50
Latvia Constitution 40
Moldova Constitution 40

So, by reducing the age to 21 Ireland would move out of line with most countries, though it wouldn’t be the country with the lowest minimum age. That said, whether or not a country is out of line in this sort of issue is probably irrelevant anyway.

Last night, the Taoiseach announced that the referendum would be held on 22 May. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the referendum has yet to stir passions. There have been opinion pieces for and against in The Irish Times, but little more.

In these pieces, the main arguments for were that any minimum threshold above the voting age is arbitrary. There is no evidence that people are more mature at 35 than 40 or any other age, if maturity is the reason for having a higher threshold. There is also an argument that lower age thresholds generally increase participation in political life.

The main arguments against were that a younger president would lack experience to handle political crises and that a younger president might be more party-dependent than an older, more confident politician.

From my experience of the Constitutional Convention on the presidential issue, I came away with the feeling that people really respected the presidency, that they did want to open up the nomination procedures and weaken the grip of political parties in that regard, but that, most importantly, they didn’t want to do anything that would either make the presidency more party political in office or that would change the president’s current figurehead role. Certainly, there was no desire to increase the president’s powers.

If I am right, then this might lead to a feeling that 21 is just too young to be president. People might agree that there is little difference in maturity, even political maturity, between someone who is 35 and someone who is 40. However, presumably there is some sort of maturity threshold, otherwise babies would be allowed to vote! If there is a maturity threshold, then it is arbitrary in one sense, but my guess is that many people will consider 21 to be just a little too young for a president and think that a 21 year-old president might bring disrespect to the office in some way. Of course, one person’s bringing disrespect to the office might be another person’s shaking up the political system a little. For some, this might be a good thing in general, but I didn’t pick up any sense that this was a particular desire in relation to the presidency.

For what it’s worth, I am sceptical that a 21 year-old would ever be elected president. No party can be guaranteed of having its candidate elected. So, no party could select a young candidate safe in the knowledge that they would win. Any candidate would have to go through a very public grilling both on talk shows and in debates. This might prove difficult for a less seasoned political figure as previous candidates have discovered to their cost. So, if the fear of the election of an immature president is the main worry, then I suspect that the cost of reducing the voting age is small. If that’s right, then you might want to vote yes in the hope that it still increases participation somehow. Whether this reform really would increase participation is open to debate. I am not convinced that it would in any meaningful way. For sure, there are better ways of doing so if that is your main aim.

With no overwhelming argument in favour and with what I would think of as a pretty conservative set of attitudes in relation to the presidency, then I would be surprised if this issue passes. I haven’t seen any opinion polls yet, though.

To the extent that there is a consensus, then it is based a certain puzzlement as to why the government has chosen to focus on this issue rather than many of the others that came out of the Constitutional Convention. There is no doubt that the marriage equality referendum is likely to generate a good voter turnout, which at least means that people might also decide to cast a vote on the presidential age issue as well. However, it is unlikely to be an issue that ever fires up the political passions.

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