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, sorted by continent.
Number of non-partisan presidents in presidential and semi-presidential democracies between 1990-2013
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. 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.
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.
 A democracy is considered consolidated if it scores at least 5 on the Polity IV scale for five or more consecutive years.
 Doorenspleet, R. (2005) Democratic Transitions: Exploring the Structural Sources of the Fourth Wave. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.