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[Leonid Bershidsky] Europe’s young leaders are bucking politics as usual

The emergence of 34-year-old Sanna Marin as Finland’s new prime minister is no fluke: In recent years, Europe has seen its leaders get younger as the new generation appears better at navigating increasingly complex political landscapes.

The average age of global leaders actually has increased since the 1950s, according to the Rulers, Elections and Irregular Government dataset, created by Curtis Bell from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In Europe, though, it has been going down since the 1980s, falling significantly below the global average.

The European Union’s current cohort of national leaders has a median age of 52. The group of 28 people includes eight leaders under the age of 45 (and will include nine once Sebastian Kurz, 33, comes back as Austria’s chancellor: He’s working on forming a new coalition government after winning an election in September, while the chancellorship is held by temporary stand-in Brigitte Bierlein, who is 70). Only five of the leaders, including Bierlein, are older than 60, and only one -- Cyprus’ Nicos Anastasiades, 73 -- is older than 70.

Marin, confirmed as prime minister by the Finnish parliament on Tuesday, got the job after the ruling coalition of five parties ousted the previous prime minister, Antti Rinne, for mishandling a major labor dispute at the national postal service. Marin was Rinne’s deputy in the Social Democratic Party, and effectively ran its successful election campaign earlier this year because Rinne had to take a protracted sick leave. Often asked about her age and sex, she keeps repeating that she never thinks about either, just about her goals in politics. The other four parties in the coalition are also led by women, three of them in their thirties.

But Marin’s rise isn’t just about Finland’s progressive political culture; more than a century ago it became the first country in Europe to let women vote. It’s also about a certain new approach young leaders bring to the continent’s increasingly fragmented politics.

In Denmark, 41-year-old Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen runs a minority government that relies on the support of three other parties to rule; she’s lasted 152 days so far, and her party has extended its poll lead over rivals. Though technically center-left, Frederiksen adopted a tough anti-immigration stance to win.

Austria’s Kurz, of the center-right, has shown a similar disregard for convention. He first built a coalition with the toxic far right, and now that this has failed, is working on a deal with the Greens. In Estonia, Juri Ratas, who became prime minister at 38 in 2016, is hoping his own controversial deal with the far right will work out better than Kurz’s.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who was 39 when he won the presidential election in 2017, steamrolled over the traditional party landscape; it’s still impossible to place him with any precision on the left-right matrix.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s half-Indian prime minister, who came out as gay before the country legalized gay marriage, also got his job at 39. He’s just as difficult to pin down on any traditional political map -- and, like Marin, he says he gives little thought to the identity issues that are supposed to define him.

In Slovenia, the former comedian Marjan Sarec, who became prime minister at 41 last year, leads a shaky multiparty minority coalition that is vaguely centrist, but anyone would struggle to define its ideology.

In other words, European politicians in their 30s and early 40s don’t subscribe to the traditional left-right paradigm; ideologies and identities are less important for them than for their predecessors. They use traditional political institutions to gain power, but they have little loyalty to them. This tendency to seek results on specific issues rather than buy any party platform wholesale should be recognizable to Americans: Millennials in the US often have been described as “post-partisan” and distrustful of the traditional political institutions.

If millennials are people born since the 1980s, most of the young European political leaders don’t qualify. But the generational succession doesn’t work exactly the same in Europe as in the US. Here, Marin and Macron belong to an age group that represents a rising political generation, one that stays in school longer than previous ones, grows up in a more diverse environment, and is completely at ease with the internet. It defies antiquated forms of political organization, tends to believe in civil society more than in parties, and is passionate about specific issues rather than all-embracing ideologies.

As this generation becomes more powerful at the ballot box, there’s no way traditional umbrella parties will be able to preserve themselves unless they choose leaders who know how to listen and talk to these voters. The young European leaders and some politicians outside the EU -- notably Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, who became prime minister at age 37 in 2017, thanks in large part to a record turnout of young voters, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, elected at 41 this year -- have figured this out. Older politicians have to study their experience and find the determinants of their success to see if they can keep up.


Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. -- Ed.

(Bloomberg)
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