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IN CASE OF EMERGENCY

How different countries handle their leadership’s line of succession

The door of 10 Downing Street in London
REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Power abhors a vacuum.

British prime minister Boris Johnson is in intensive care after his Covid-19 symptoms worsened on Monday (April 6). He has received oxygen treatment at a hospital in London, but has not been put on a ventilator.

His case is a stark reminder that Covid-19, which is especially harmful to older men, is putting the world’s leaders, who are mostly old men, at great risk. Only about a dozen heads of state are women, and world leaders have become older in recent decades.

This brings up the grim question of what happens when a world leader is temporarily or permanently unable to assume his or her duties, especially during a crisis. To answer this question, Quartz looked at succession plans in eight key nations around the world.

United Kingdom

If the prime minister departs suddenly for any reason, the party to which they belong elects a new leader and, pending the formality of the Queen’s assent, that person becomes the new permanent prime minister. But that would take a few days or weeks, at least.

In an emergency, the baton would most likely be passed to one of the three most senior government ministers: the chancellor, home secretary, or foreign secretary. But there is no written rule that unequivocally states which of those three would take charge. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has taken over from Johnson, but still isn’t a true interim prime minister.

It is also possible, constitutionally, to have no prime minister. Senior ministers could take turns chairing meetings, since the country is run by the cabinet, with the prime minister merely first among equals. Meanwhile, the delivery of their policies has always been a matter for Britain’s civil service.

Hasit Shah, deputy news editor, London

United States

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Congress ratified the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the orderly transfer of power when the president dies, resigns, or is incapacitated.

Under Section 1, if a president dies, resigns, or is removed from office, the vice president becomes president.

Under Section 3, a president can temporarily hand over power to the vice president by sending a written declaration to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives stating that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush invoked Section 3 during medical procedures.

Section 4 is more controversial and has never been used in US political history. It states that the vice president and “a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide,” can declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” against his will, by sending a written declaration to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

According to The Atlantic:

“The president can respond in writing that he is not in fact disabled; the vice president and Cabinet (or disability review body) then have four days to respond. Congress then has 48 hours to decide the question (or 21 days if Congress is not in session.) If two-thirds of both houses of Congress decide that the president is indeed disabled, the vice president becomes acting president; otherwise, the president remains in office.”

Annabelle Timsit, reporter, London

France

Article 7 of the French Constitution (link in French) states that if a president dies or resigns, or has a severe disability that is witnessed by an absolute majority of the members of the Constitutional Council, the president of the Senate becomes acting president. But he is limited in his powers: He cannot organize a referendum, dissolve the National Assembly, or revise the Constitution. And if he cannot exercise the duties of president, the government as a whole takes over.

The Constitution states that a new election should take place at least 20 days and at most 35 days before the expiration of the powers of the president in office.

Under France’s Fifth Republic, only one president has ever died in office: In April 1974, George Pompidou died of cancer (French). And only one has ever resigned: Charles de Gaulle did so in April 1969 (French) after he proposed a referendum to reform the French government, which failed. In both cases, the president of the Senate, Alain Poher, took over.

Annabelle Timsit, reporter, London

Italy

In Italy, the vice-premier takes over the government in case the premier is temporarily absent, but it’s unclear if that would also happen in case the premier dies, or if an election is called. The role is not mentioned in the constitution. There is no definitive permanent succession, other than via an election.

The premier can choose not to appoint a deputy, and in that case the oldest minister takes the role. That’s currently the case. Giuseppe Conte, the current premier, failed to appoint a deputy when he formed his cabinet in 2019, so Luciana Lamorgese, his oldest minister, and the head of the interior department, is technically the vice-premier.

—Luiz Romero, reporter, São Paulo/Milan

India

If a prime minister died while in office in India, the minister considered most senior would be appointed to run the government for a temporary period. The ruling party would then elect one of its leaders as the permanent successor. It is not clear who the most senior minister is, although the current home minister, Amit Shah, is generally considered prime minister Narendra Modi’s number two.

When Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964, Gulzarilal Nanda was appointed as the caretaker PM until the ruling Indian National Congress elected Lal Bahadur Shashtri. Upon Shashtri’s sudden death 1966, Nanda was again chosen as the caretaker prime minister until Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, was chosen for the post by the ruling Congress party.

The convention, however, wasn’t followed after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, when instead of a caretaker prime minister, her son Rajiv Gandhi was chosen as the successor.

Amanat Khullar, reporter, New Delhi

Brazil

In the eventuality that the Brazilian president is unable to assume his duties, his vice-president would take over. The current president, Jair Bolsonaro, has great fondness for the armed forces and a nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship of the past, and his deputy, Hamilton Mourão, is a general. With the current administration, it is possible to forecast a military renaissance at the heart of government in Brazil.

If the vice-president also dies, the head of the lower house of congress takes over, followed by the head of the upper house, and the chief judge of the supreme court. Unlike the vice-president, the three can only hold the post for a few months, until a new election is held.

—Luiz Romero, reporter, São Paulo/Milan

China

Under Article 84 of China’s constitution, if the presidency becomes vacant for any reason, the vice-president takes over as president. The constitution does not clarify for how long or when the next election should take place. If the vice-president cannot take over, the constitution orders the chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to temporarily take over while the National People’s Congress elects a new president and vice-president.

But the positions of president and vice-president are not as important in China as they are elsewhere in the world. The most important political figure in China is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, a position currently held by Xi Jinping. The party constitution, however, does not specify what would happen in the absence of the general secretary. In 1987, when the president and general secretary Hu Yaobang resigned, then-prime minister Zhao Ziyang became the acting general secretary.

Since the 1990s, the president typically holds all three of the country’s key party, political, and military leadership roles at some point. But this is not always the case, and there’s sometimes a lag between handovers.

Annabelle Timsit, reporter, London, and Tony Lin, producer, New York.

Nigeria

In Nigeria, the constitution prescribes that the vice-president will take over in the event of a president’s passing.

But the nuances of local politics suggest that it won’t be straightforward, drama-free process. In 2010, when President Musa Yar’Adua died in office, Goodluck Jonathan, his vice-president, ultimately rose to power. But the previous few weeks had been defined by high-level politicking by Yar’Adua’s core kitchen cabinet who sought to hold on to power for as long as possible during the then-president’s severe illness.

Today, with president Muhammadu Buhari and vice president Yemi Osinbajo essentially backed by entirely different power blocs within the same political party, a similar power tussle would be likely to  play out.

—Yomi Kazeem, reporter, Lagos

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