President of Cameroon Paul Biya with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) attend a signing ceremony at The Great Hall Of The People in Beijing, China March 22, 2018. Lintao Zhang/Pool via Reuters
Uruguay's former president Jose Mujica arrives with delegates of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), who are observing Ecuador's electoral process, and members of the Council National Electoral (CNE) of Ecuador in Guayaquil, Ecuador April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero
The recent surprise election of Malaysia’s 92-year old Mahathir Mohamad demonstrates that age is indeed but a number. Here’s our rundown of the top five most interesting geriatric rulers.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia, 92
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attends an international conference in Tokyo June 3, 2004. Mahathir is in Japan to attend a conference called “The Future of Asia”, along with other leaders from East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao YN/SH
Last week’s biggest political shock was the remarkable return to power of Malaysia’s 92-year old Mahathir Mohamad, a veteran politician who nonetheless achieved the near impossible by unseating the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), in power since 1955.
Since Malaysia only gained full independence from Britain in 1957, Mahathir’s victory represents the first change of government in the country’s history.
A testament to his tenacity, the landmark election was also the result of widespread disgust with the corruption and graft of outgoing prime minister Najib Razak.
And though considered “a heartening victory for democracy” according to The Economist, Mohamad does not come without baggage.
A five-time former prime minister over 22 years for the once-ruling UMNO, he was a strong defender of Malaysia’s system of racial preferences against Chinese and Indians to keep ethnic Malays in UMNO’s boat.
Mohamad has promised to scrap a much-loathed sales tax, promised further press freedoms, and has already released former prime minister Anwar Ibrahim from prison.
Paul Biya, Cameroon, 85
If Henry David Thoreau was right that “the government which governs best governs least,” Cameroon’s Paul Biya is a doing a remarkably good job.
In office since 1982, the 85-year president abolished term limits in 2008 and is thought to have spent fully one-third of this time abroad between 2006-2009, the great bulk of which at the Intercontinental in Geneva.
Not only are conservative estimates suggesting that he has spent a total 4.5 years abroad since first assuming office; in March 2018 he held his first cabinet meeting in two years.
Up for re-election this October, Biya’s faces the difficult challenge of convincing a nation of 23.5 million people—60% of whom were born after he became president—to choose him for another term.
With a median age of 18.5, the average Cameroonian is 66 years younger than the president.
Additionally, increasing unrest in the country’s two western Anglophone regions is putting pressure on Africa’s oldest incumbent, so there may be a grain of truth to the notion that his ‘absentee’ approach to governance has prevented worse from occurring.
In fact, Biya’s hands-off leadership is beginning to resemble the more ceremonial kind of presidency in evidence in Germany, Israel, or Ireland, at a hefty price to the Cameroonian taxpayer.
José Mujica, Uruguay, 82
Though Uruguay’s most popular president in decades stepped down after one term in 2015, former Marxist revolutionary Jose Mujica arguably remains Latin America’s most beloved living leader.
And at age 82, his longevity is second only to Raul Castro, 86, who stepped down as Cuban president last month.
Renowned for his pauper-like personal habits and compassionate pragmatism, the former Marxist insurgent spent 13 years in prison.
He is not only famous for making Uruguay the first country to legalize marijuana in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth to legalize abortion in Latin America after Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guyana.
His unique views on everything from poverty (“My definition of poor are those who need too much”) to religion (“Who am I with my doubts about the nature of the universe to question the value of religion in people’s lives?”) and drugs (“Marijuana is another plague, another addiction. Some say it’s good, but that’s rubbish. But 150,000 people smoke here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers”) have made him an international cult hero to this day.
€¨Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman, 77
At 77, Sultan Qaboos is the youngest entry on our list.
After ousting his father in a peaceful palace coup in 1970, the Sultan set about reforming a country that had six miles of paved road, three schools, and one hospital.
Spurning the ultraconservatism of his father, who so feared a cultural onslaught of the west that he banned sunglasses and radios, Sultan Qaboos used the country’s oil wealth to build more than 18,000 miles of road, 1,500 schools, 70 hospitals, and 240 health centers.
All without sacrificing the country’s laidback aesthetic, disposition, or pace of life.
Under the septuagenarian’s watch as the head of the country’s defense, foreign affairs, and finance ministries, Oman’s life expectancy increased from 50 to 77.5 between 1970-2017, one of the most radical improvements in the world.
Widely praised for his efforts to try and broker a peace between the warring factions in Yemen, Qaboos’ ultra-steady hand was only shaken once during the early stages of the “Arab Spring,” when protesters in the port city of Sohar demanding jobs, better wages, and lower cost of living took to the streets and briefly rioted.
Qaboos quelled the unrest by promising 50,000 new jobs, unemployment benefits of 150 rials/month (USD390), and increases in monthly stipends for students.
Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia, 91
The first freely elected president since the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Essebsi’s secular Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) party replaced the Ennahda Movement as Tunisia’s largest in a hugely important December 2014 election.
Much more than a veteran politician, Essebsi has been in and out of politics since historic events such as Eisenhower’s reelection and Khrushchev’s secret speech (1956).
By then a 30-year old lawyer and ardent supporter of Tunisia’s independence movement, he went to work straight away for the country’s postcolonial leader, Habib Bourguiba.
This didn’t prevent him from serving Bourguiba’s predecessor, Ben Ali, either. Occupying various security, foreign affairs, and defense-related posts under the two men who collectively ruled Tunisia for over half a century, Essebsi is the everlasting Tunisian technocrat who just won’t go away.
Nonetheless, he still has to contend with ever-growing discontent, as the most recent wave of protests in January 2018 in response to tax hikes and rising prices attest.