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Government / Local politics

Former mayors now rule countries containing 1 in 10 of the world’s population

When the Philippines’ next president enters office on 30 June, the country will join a growing club of nations led by former mayors. With the addition of 98m Filipinos, the total number of people in these countries will reach almost a tenth of the world’s population. 

In 2013 American political theorist Benjamin Barber argued that cities were the political unit best suited for meeting the challenges of the 21st century – so much so, that mayors would soon “rule the world”. This doesn’t seem to have dampened mayors’ enthusiasm for seeking national office, however. Only eight countries had such leaders at the time; it’s now up to fifteen, ranging from tiny Luxembourg to giant Indonesia.

For canny mayors the distance between the city hall and the presidential palace can be an advantage rather than an obstacle to their ambitions. Leading an important city allows politicians to build a base outside of national politics. The practical requirements of city leadership mean they can demonstrate success more clearly, while there are opportunities to build alliances through patronage and cooperation.

So it is that in 2014 Joko Widodo, the former mayor of Jakarta, became the first president of Indonesia without a military background or close links to a former president. Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi used his well-publicised term as mayor of Florence to gather support from other regional politicians to challenge his older rivals for leadership of the Democratic Party.


This trend is interesting, but does it matter? What is different about having a country governed by someone who came up through running a city?

There are some clear potential benefits. Climate change, settling refugees and urbanisation itself are the biggest challenges facing the world, and mayors have first-hand experience of handling them. Networks like C40 bring together mayors from around the world to cooperate and share ideas for reducing carbon emissions and adapting cities to climate change. Argentina and Indonesia are both now led by presidents who took part in the network. More world leaders who have this experience of international cooperation could inject some energy into world climate talks.

It’s not all friendly cooperation and green initiatives, though. The elevation of politicians accustomed to running their own local fiefdoms, often with less scrutiny than national leaders are accustomed to, could bring with it a tendency towards ugly populism.  As mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte allegedly protected a death squad who had killed more than 1,000 suspected criminals without trial. Since winning the presidential election, he has said citizens should shoot drug dealers, and vowed to bring back the death penalty.

Populists can come from all sorts of backgrounds though, and on balance it’s probably a good thing overall for the most successful city leaders to bring their ideas into national politics. The oft repeated complaint that the UK’s top politicians have little experience outside of Parliament could be about to change as the number of directly elected mayors grow.

Whether or not Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister, it’s likely that another mayor will before too long. Even more reason to keep a close eye on them.
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