The Ten Year Itch: How do you follow long-serving leaders?


So, how easy is it to succeed a leader who has been in power for a number of years? This paper offers some clues. Looking across 23 countries it concludes that leaders taking over the hot seat do so with difficulty and often have a shorter time in office.

There have been a number of very long serving democratic leaders: Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US (President, 1933-45) , Australia’s Robert Menzies (1949-66) and four-term Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007), Malta’s Dom Mintoff (1949-1984), Sweden’s Tage Erlander (1945-68) or Germany’s Helmut Kohl (Chancellor, 1982-98) ( given the nickname “Der ewige Kanzler” the eternal chancellor. The study shows that these leaders are indeed difficult to follow. Crunching data on leader longevity, it argues that

Empirically, we show that party leaders who succeeded a (very) long-serving party leader and/or to a leader who had also been the head of government experience lower longevity than others, making these types of predecessors “hard acts to follow”.

The paper goes on to explain this is not an ‘iron law’ but a tendency…

This is not to say that such successions are inevitably doomed. Counter-examples are also not hard to find, including John Major’s (1990-97) replacement of Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) in the British Conservative Party, Olaf Palme’s (1969-86) replacement of 23-year Prime Minister Tage Erlander (1946-69) in the Swedish Social-Democratic Party, and Wim Kok’s (1986-2002) replacement of Joop den Uyl (1969-1986) within the Dutch Social-Democratic Party.

Interestingly, there may be a ‘threshold effect’-10 years seems to be the length of time when succeeding really becomes a problem.

So why it so hard to take over? It can be simple public association with the leader who has been around a long time: a “taken for grantedness”. It is also about the way a long-serving leader builds a support base and how the public get used to a certain ‘leadership style’. Among the public there may also be an “attribution effect” whereby ‘a party’s success during a long serving leader’s tenure is credited to the leader’s credentials, not to exogenous factors’. Long servers get credit for things they didn’t have anything to with-like an economic boom.

The paper points out that ‘for those who come after successors to long-serving leaders face a greater weight of expectations shaped by constituent memories of the “golden years” the party experienced under these “great leaders.”

Perhaps the last question is what can a new leader do about it? Forge a new ‘style’? Call an election? Develop new ideas? How can those taking over get out of the 10 year trap?

Horiuchi, Yusaku and Laing, Matthew and Hart, Paul ‘t, Hard Acts to Follow: Predecessor Effects on Party Leader Survival (October 27, 2012). Party Politics, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: