We have this picture in our heads of fat cat politicians. They’re usually wearing a tophat and monocle, holding a big bag of money (or is that just me?). Politicians and presidents sometimes receive a healthy annual salary, and they sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of some very generous gifts, donations, and bribes. It all adds up. And while that’s true of some politicians, it definitely doesn’t apply to all of them.
The elected leaders of the Western world all do very well on the salary front. According to Paywizard, U.S. President Barack Obama makes a very comfortable $395,000 per year (not counting whatever else he makes from his own private investments and other endeavors). German Chancellor Angela Merkel is close to that with $328,000. Newly elected Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau comes in at $270,000, while U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron receives $215,000. Generally speaking, a politician at the federal level in Canada or the U.S. can expect to make somewhere between $140,000 and $250,000 depending on their specific role and position.
They all pale in comparison, though, to Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong. His annual salary is $1.7 million. Yup. Million.
With other leaders, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how much they’re paid, as the figures may not be released, or it may be hidden behind a mountain of corruption, double-dealings, and outright bribery. Countries run by a dictatorship or military rule may see their politicians take millions from the coffers.
Even European royalty receive a “salary” in their capacity as head of state (whether or not it’s purely ceremonial).
Everyone gets paid for the job they do. Sometimes it’s a fair amount, and sometimes it’s not (either ridiculously too high, or too low). Regardless, no one should consider getting into politics as a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s long hours, headaches, stress, and pressure.
The best politicians get into politics because they want to make a difference in the lives of their constituents and citizens. It can be a rewarding and noble pursuit...even though our collective opinion of politics is very, very low. The appeal of a relatively high salary, various fringe benefits, and a generous pension attracts a lot of less-than-ideal candidates.
But it would be unfair to write them all off as greedy, uncaring, and cold-hearted. Some of them work very hard for their country, and receive very little remuneration in return. But that doesn’t stop them. And, to be fair, some of them are independently very, very wealthy, so their salary (or lack thereof) is unimportant. It takes all sorts.
1. Pranab Mukherjee
The 13th and current President of India, Pranab Mukherjee was elected to the office in 2012, but he’s been involved in Indian politics since 1969. He served under Indira Gandhi and has held a number of key positions and seats over the decades. As such, he’s not exactly a pauper. His presidential salary works out to roughly $28,800 USD annually.
That may sound low, but he does live in a palatial presidential mansion with hundreds of rooms and servants. Called Rashtrapati Bhavan, the 340-room main building contains offices, the official residence, guest rooms, and halls. It sits on a 320-acre estate that was the largest residence for a Head of State until it was dethroned by the Presidential Complex in Turkey in 2014. So he’s not exactly paying rent for a small studio apartment in New Delhi.
2. Xi Jinping
As the President of the People’s Republic of China, you would think Xi Jinping would find himself with an enviable paycheck each month. In addition to being the president, Jinping is also the current General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. He served as Vice President under Hu Jintao from 2008 until he assumed the office of President in 2013. The son of a prominent Communist leader, Xinping rose quickly through the CPC ranks. Despite a recent 60% increase in his salary, he currently makes only $22,000 USD per year.
But don’t let that fool you: his family fortune is estimated to be hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. His daughter even attended Harvard University. But, Xi Jinping has been very careful about any paper trail leading to him directly, and the assets are all under the name of his older sister, brother-in-law, or niece. Nothing traces back to him, so he can’t be accused of embezzling government funds or assisting his family in any way. Despite the wealth, there is no evidence that Jinping is corrupt or interested in material gain. That said, he is no doubt "surviving" on his tiny presidential paycheck (the family owns several luxury properties in Hong Kong and elsewhere).
3. Robert Mugabe
Many African countries have a reputation for corruption, embezzlement, and bribery amongst their politicians and leaders. Zimbabwe is no exception, currently ranked 163rd out of 176 countries on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Robert Mugabe has been the President of Zimbabwe since 1987 (and he served as the Prime Minister from 1980-1987).
His presidential salary is only $18,000 USD annually, but as Zimbabwe is one of the most corrupt nations on the planet (with politicians taking an estimated $2 billion USD in 2012 alone), Mugabe is most definitely helping himself to more than that. His personal worth is estimated between $5-10 million (although some sources believe that number is closer to $3-5 BILLION), as he treats Zimbabwe as his own private piggy bank (and the country is rich in diamond deposits).
4. Beji Caid Essebsi
The Tunisian Revolution (aka the Jasmine Revolution) of 2010 led directly to the ousting of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ali (said to be worth an estimated $7 billion), and democratic reform in the tiny country in North Africa. It is now the only democratic country in the Arab world. Beji Caid Essebsi is Tunisia’s first democratically elected President, having won the election in December 2014. He founded the secular Nidaa Tounes political party following the revolution, and his party won a plurality of seats in addition to Essebsi himself winning the presidential election.
His salary is a rock-bottom $16,400 USD per year, but his family has ties to the aristocracy and monarchy that was disposed of 60 years ago. He himself studied law in Paris. While his personal wealth is not a matter of public record, he is no doubt quite comfortable. Although he has vowed to "be president of all Tunisian men and women without exclusion", there are some Tunisians that believe he is attempting to build a family dynasty with his son.
5. Macky Sall
The Republic of Senegal is located in West Africa and is considered to be one of the most successful colony-to-democracy transitions in the entire continent. Freedom House ( an advocacy group for democracy, political freedom, and human rights) currently ranks the country as “free”. Macky Sall was sworn in as the fourth President of Senegal in 2012 (after serving terms as the Mayor of Fatick, President of the National Assembly, and Prime Minister of Senegal). He is a pro-democracy politician, and he made moves to restore political freedoms and term limits after his election victory.
Despite coming from a family of modest means, he recently declared $2.6 million in assets, including a 300sqm apartment in Texas, and a villa worth more than half a million Euros. As his salary is a meagre $15,600 USD per year, many are questioning how and where the money came from. Sall has been suspiciously quiet on the matter.
6. José Mujica
Hands down one of the most popular and respected political leaders, José Mujica, is frequently referred to as the humblest president in the world. He served as the 40th President of Uruguay from 2010 until just earlier this year. Mujica was a guerilla fighter for the Tupamaros and spent 13 years in prison under the military dictatorship in the 70s and 80s. He was freed in 1985 after the restoration of constitutional democracy, and he soon thereafter joined the Broad Front political party.
He served as the Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries, as well as a senator, before becoming president. While in office, Mujica donated roughly 90% of his $150,000 annual salary to charity, keeping only $15,000 for himself and his wife. He declined the Presidential Residence (even opening it up to the homeless for a while), living instead in a simple house on his wife’s farm. His car? A 1987 VW Beetle. His is a simple man living a humble life. At his retirement this year, he had a +70% approval rating.
7. Pope Francis
While not technically a president or politician, Pope Francis (born Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is the head of Vatican City, the smallest independent state in the world. He’s not elected by the people, per se, but the Pope is elected by the Roman Catholic Cardinals. Francis is the 266th Pope (and leader) of the Roman Catholic Church, and he has principal legislative, executive, and judicial power over the State of Vatican City.
In his capacity as such, he receives an annual salary of $0, making him the unrivalled “champion” of the lowest paid leaders and presidents. He’s certainly not hurting, though, as the Roman Catholic Church has billions and billions (and billions) in assets and property around the world. Francis himself, though, is well known for his austerity and simple needs, all of which are taken care of by the Church.
See also: What Does It Take to Become a Politician?
Politics is not for everyone. It can be hard, frustrating, and usually thankless work. And while most Western politicians are at least financially comfortable, the same can not be said for all politicians. Yes, some are corrupt. Yes, some are only interested in what they can steal from their time in office. But, others do it for noble and inspiring reasons.
What other politicians make only peanuts? Leave your additions in the comments below...