Medan, Indonesia – Over the past two weeks, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has been pondering the often globally debated topic of age and whether it matters for political office.
Last week, the court had to rule on a legal challenge to lower the current minimum age for vice-presidential and presidential candidates from 40 to 35.
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The court rejected the case, maintaining that candidates needed to be 40 years old to be eligible to run, but they added a caveat.
Candidates who had already been elected to public office would be allowed to contest even if they were under 40 years old. The decision paved the way for President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka – the current mayor of Surakarta – to run as a vice-presidential candidate.
The court was also tasked with scrutinising the upper age limit for candidates after a challenge was filed to exclude those older than 70.
That challenge was also rejected, ensuring Prabowo Subianto, a 72-year-old two-time presidential hopeful and the current defence minister, could campaign for the top job.
Prabowo and Gibran officially registered as presidential and vice-presidential candidates on Wednesday.
While Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has ruled neither man is too young nor too old to run for office, the cases have highlighted long-running debates over age and what it means for an individual’s capacity for political leadership.
Simon Butt, a professor of Indonesian Law at the University of Sydney Law School, told Al Jazeera that a strong argument against age restrictions for elected office was the constitutional principle of democracy.
“The idea is that as long as voters have access to full information, such that they can make an informed decision about who to vote for, then we should leave it to voters to decide, regardless of age,” he said.
“After all, there is already a requirement that candidates be fit and healthy to stand for or hold office. I suppose that would deal with any argument that a candidate is too old. If he or she is mentally and physically fit, then why not?”
Indonesia will hold simultaneous presidential and legislative elections on February 14 next year, with some 205 million of the country’s 270 million people eligible to vote.
The other presidential and vice-presidential pairings contesting the election are the former governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, who is 54, and Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs of Indonesia, Mahfud MD, who is 66, as well as the former mayor of Jakarta, 54-year-old Anies Baswedan and 57-year old Muhaimin Iskandar, the deputy speaker of the People’s Representative Council.
The old ways
But it is not just in Indonesia that the age of political candidates has become a legal and public talking point.
In the United States, current President Joe Biden was the oldest person to become the country’s president when he won the election at the age of 77 in 2020. Biden’s advanced age – he is running for office again in 2024 – has been used to question his ability to govern amid claims of supposed physical and cognitive decline by his opponents.
In September, former President Donald Trump, who is likely to be Biden’s main rival in 2024, told the right-wing Pray, Vote, Stand summit that Biden was “cognitively impaired, in no condition to lead.” At 77, Trump himself is no youngster.
Across wider Southeast Asia, some leaders also skew towards the older end of the demographic.
Anwar Ibrahim, the prime minister of Malaysia, is 76 years old. Mahathir Mohamad, who was the country’s prime minister from 1981 until 2003, became the world’s oldest leader in 2018 when he was sworn into office at the age of 92.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is 71, while in Cambodia 71-year-old Hun Sen was prime minister until July this year when his 46-year-old son, Hun Manet, replaced him.
Yet, while older politicians may be derided as too infirm to rule, younger leaders also face questions about their ability to lead effectively.
Sydney University’s Butt said that reflects a perceived lack of political and life experience.
Jacinda Ardern was the world’s youngest female head of government when she was sworn in as prime minister of New Zealand in 2017 at the age of 37, while Finland’s former Prime Minister Sanna Marin was 34 -with both women being targeted for their age and supposed lack of experience.
In Indonesia, Gibran has faced similar criticism, particularly considering his only political experience is as mayor of Surakarta – a city of about half a million people in Central Java that is also known as Solo. He had had that job for just two years before becoming a vice-presidential candidate.
Titi Anggraini, an advisory board member of the Association for Elections and Democracy and a constitutional law lecturer at Universitas Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that the issue of younger candidates was something that could not be avoided in the current Indonesian political landscape.
Some 31 percent of Indonesian voters are under the age of 30, according to data from the General Elections Commission.
“It is no longer relevant to carry out an age-based leadership dichotomy, especially amidst the trend of domination of young voters and young people in Indonesia’s demographic composition,” she said.
Anggraini added that the fact that some candidates were younger would be meaningless if they still campaigned and governed in the old way.
Indonesian politics has long been dogged by accusations of nepotism, cronyism and corruption.
“If the choice of candidates only depends on one or two people within the internal political party, then there will not be much meaning in the presence of such young leadership if young leaders are also part of the party elite and oligarchy,” she said.
She added, however, that pairing younger and older candidates as running mates could be fruitful if the candidates are able to address voters’ concerns across the generations.
“The combination of young and senior leadership or vice versa could be a point of compromise in order to find the best approach to accommodate various interests in society or among the political elite.”
Mancur Sinaga, a lawyer based in Medan and a lecturer on legal ethics and philosophy, told Al Jazeera that the debate should be rooted in research if voters were truly concerned about age.
“If there is serious scientific research which is able to provide an explanation of what age is the most suitable to hold office, then that should be the basis for discussing and debating age limits both legally or politically,” he said.
“Otherwise, age-related arguments about political candidates will always be based on subjectivity, and the likes and dislikes of voters and individuals.”