Party leaders in Europe range from experienced politicians to relative novices. But does a leader’s political experience matter to their electoral success? Drawing on a new study covering Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, Clint Claessen shows that what party leaders do before obtaining the leadership affects their chances of political survival.
Political parties’ electoral fortunes depend heavily on their leaders and failure to achieve results can quickly see leaders dispensed with. But does previous political experience help leaders achieve success and survive longer?
In a new study, I attempt to answer this question. In previous research, political experience has been captured in surprisingly incomplete ways. To quantify it more comprehensively, I incorporate all political positions a party leader has held within the legislature, the political party and the executive, before aggregating them into a standardised measure of career capital. Career capital incorporates both the duration and the seniority of a politician’s previous positions, in which seniority is measured by the average age at which party leaders obtain the position.
Figure 1 shows how the career capital of party leaders varies in four countries: Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The figure indicates that since 1945, party leaders in Germany have had the most diverse careers over the longest time span. This is particularly the case in the traditional government parties, such as the CDU/CSU and the SPD, where party leaders have usually had plenty of previous political experience.
In contrast, Canadian and Swiss party leaders have had much shorter careers and are also less diverse. While the provincial level plays a significant role in Canada, in Switzerland, the militia system probably has a considerable influence on these political career patterns. In the Netherlands, the fragmentation of the party system results in political entrepreneurs with much less experience emerging as party leaders.
Figure 1: Career capital of party leaders
We might expect that the amount of political experience party leaders have has drastically decreased in recent decades due to the increasingly volatile electoral environment and decline of traditional governing parties in countries like the Netherlands and Germany. However, as Figure 2 shows, this is not the case. I find no significant increase or decrease in the political experience of party leaders over time. The only interesting trend is that around 1980, there was a clear dip in career capital, for which the reasons are unclear.
Figure 2: Career capital of party leaders over time
In the next step of my research, I model the political survival of party leaders using a survival analysis. I look at whether a leader’s political experience in the form of career capital has a relationship with how long they stay in the leadership position. In addition, I also examine whether their recently accumulated experience (in the last five years) contributes to the duration of their leadership.
The results of several survival models indicate that having more career capital is related to spending more time in the leadership position. I visualise this effect with survival curves, shown in Figure 3. I find that holding all else equal, leaders with career capital less than a standard deviation away from 0 corresponds to a survival curve that falls below the 0.5 rate about 3.5 years earlier than for those leaders with career capital at least two standard deviations away from 0. Lastly, I also find evidence that the relationship between career capital and party leader duration is largely driven by career capital acquired five years before entering office, implying an attrition effect.
Figure 3: Relationship between a party leader’s career capital and their survival in the leadership position
These results indicate that party leaders with more career capital seem to be better able to manoeuvre in the political arena, especially if they have legislative experience. While it is true that politicians can adapt to their newfound position as party leader, starting such a position with more experience clearly puts leaders at an advantage. It is no coincidence that many prominent and successful party leaders, such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte or former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had extensive political experience before they reached the top job.
The black box of experience
The fact that party leaders benefit from political experience – especially recent experience and experience in the national legislature – leads to further questions. Are there particular positions within the legislature that benefit leaders? Does the length of the experience matter? And to what extent does this effect depend on the nature of the party and the party elite?
These and other questions could be explored in a more qualitative examination through interviews with parliamentarians, former party leaders and party activists. We can agree with Neil Kinnockthat the first aim of a party leader is to “manage the party” and “offer a coherent set of policies and a convincing manifesto to the electorate” to win policy, office and votes. What best prepares a leader to do so in what context is still something of a black box, but at least we know that extensive experience improves a leader’s prospects,
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