The incumbent is the current holder of a political office. This term is usually used in reference to elections, in which races can often be defined as being between an incumbent and non-incumbent(s). For example, in the 2021 general elections, Edgar Lungu was the incumbent, because he had been the president in the previous term while the election sought to determine the president for the current term. A race without an incumbent is referred to as an open seat.
The word "incumbent" is derived from the Latin verb incumbere, literally meaning "to lean or lay upon" with the present participle stem incumbent-, "leaning a variant of encumber, while encumber is derived from the root cumber, most appropriately defined: "To occupy obstructively or inconveniently; to block fill up with what hinders freedom of motion or action; to burden, load."
However, there exist scenarios in which the incumbency factor itself leads to the downfall of the incumbent. Popularly known as the anti-incumbency factor, situations of this kind occur when the incumbent has proven himself not worthy of office during his tenure and the challenger demonstrates this fact to the voters. An anti-incumbency factor can also be responsible for bringing down incumbents who have been in office for many successive terms in spite of performance indicators, simply because the voters are convinced by the challenger of a need for change. Nick Panagakis, a pollster, coined what he dubbed the "incumbent rule" in 1989—that any voter who claims to be undecided towards the end of the election will probably end up voting for the challenger.
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- OED (1989), p. 834
- OED (1989), p. 218
- OED (1989), p. 124
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- Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Print.