Who’s Lasted the Longest?

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who has been in that office since November 2005, is the West’s most senior incumbent leader. Merkel is standing for another re-election in the September 24, 2017 German federal elections. We wonder: Among countries with populations of at least one hundred thousand, which woman holds the record for the longest uninterrupted tenure as the elected head of government?

A. Indira Gandhi
B. Margaret Thatcher
C. Angela Merkel
D. Sheikh Hasina

A. Indira Gandhi … is not correct.

Indira Gandhi served as Indian Prime Minister for 16 years altogether. That is the second-longest total duration of any woman who ever served as an elected head of government.

However, Indira Gandhi’s full service as prime minister was not consecutive. Gandhi first served an 11-year, 90-day uninterrupted tenure from January 1966 to March 1977.

Indira Gandhi’s uninterrupted 11.25 year period of leading the government was surpassed by two female leaders in the first half of 2017. As of June 2017, Gandhi holds the fourth-place ranking for consecutive years of service among long-serving women elected heads of government in countries of at least one hundred thousand residents.

Moreover, Gandhi’s first tenure in the prime minister post was artificially extended. In 1975, she decided to suspend national elections and attempted to suppress any political opposition during India’s “Emergency” period that lasted from June 1975 to March 1977. By the time of the 1977 elections, Gandhi was so unpopular that she lost her own seat in parliament, as well as her parliamentary majority.

Nevertheless, Indira Gandhi returned to power just three years later, in January 1980. Ultimately, she governed India for nearly five more years, for a total of 16 years. She was assassinated in October 1984 by one of her own bodyguards, in retaliation for a massacre on holy ground in Amritsar that she had ordered.

B. Margaret Thatcher … is not correct.

Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for an uninterrupted 11 years and 209 days in office, from May 1979 to November 1990.

That is 118 more days than India’s Indira Gandhi in her first time as prime minister. Angela Merkel surpassed Margaret Thatcher’s length of service on June 19, 2017.

Until then, Thatcher held the women’s record among countries with a population of at least one hundred thousand. Among all countries, Thatcher briefly held the world record among women for an unbroken tenure as elected head of government. That record today belongs to a woman leading a former British island territory – Dominica, in the Caribbean – who served at the same time as Thatcher.

Prime Minister Eugenia Charles led her tiny nation for an uninterrupted 14 years and 328 days, from July 1980 to June 1995, breaking Thatcher’s record in 1991, the year after it was set. Dominica has a population of 73,000, the world’s 10th smallest, and a land area of 750 square km (290 square miles).

C. Angela Merkel … is correct.

As of June 19, 2017, Angela Merkel now holds the record – among countries of at least one hundred thousand people – as having the longest consecutive tenure as a head of government for an elected woman, at almost 12 years. (Among all countries, she still ranks behind tiny Dominica’s Eugenia Charles.)

Merkel is closely trailed in her record by Liberia’s incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in January 2006, nearly 60 days after Merkel. (Like Merkel, Sirleaf overtook Gandhi’s record this year, but she still ranks behind Thatcher as of June 19, 2017.)

Sirleaf is not seeking re-election in the October 2017 presidential election and will thus never overtake Merkel’s record for unbroken tenure, barring unforeseen early or delayed departures.

German heads of government have often served for notably long periods. The late Chancellor Helmut Kohl served 16 years, from 1982 to 1998. Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor after WWII, served for 14 years, from 1949 to 1963. (Merkel would have to serve until December 2019 to surpass Adenauer and until November 2021 to match Kohl.)

Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of a united Germany, served for 19 years, from 1871 to 1890, but was appointed not elected.

In Russia, Empress Catherine the Great – a former German princess from the state of Anhalt — ruled for about 34 years in the 18th century (from 1762 to 1796). Catherine, too, played a huge part in shaping Europe, in her case in the pre-revolutionary era.

D. Sheikh Hasina … is not correct.

While Angela Merkel is the incumbent woman with the longest unbroken tenure as elected head of government, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the incumbent with the longest non-consecutive tenure.

Prime Minister Hasina has now served for more than 13 years – first from June 1996 to July 2001 and then again from January 2009 to present.

The overall record-holder for non-consecutive years as prime minister for any woman is Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (and formerly Ceylon). She served as Prime Minister – the first woman elected head of government in the world – three different times for a total of more than 17.5 years.

However, her final tenure was in a diminished role, due to a constitutional change, rather than leading the country. That responsibility fell to her daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose uninterrupted tenure in the 1990s and early 2000s made her one of the longest-serving women in the world as well.

Merkel and Sirleaf both recently surpassed Kumaratunga’s uninterrupted tenure of 11 years and 7 days.

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