|Young people show they do care about politics. © Reuters/R. Gilbraith, 2011|
Countries everywhere need to harness the power of youth in formal politics for the sake of democracy, says the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).
Marking International Day of Democracy on 15th September, IPU is urging bold action and changes in mindset if disillusioned and alienated youth the world over are to be engaged in political decision-making.
“It is a cliché to always link youth to the future. Young people not only have the power to define the future, but also decide on the present,” says IPU President Abdelwahad Radi. “However, they are largely absent from formal decision-making politics and this has to change.”
Young people between 15-25 years of age represent 20 per cent of the global population but recent IPU research showed parliamentarians below 30 years of age accounted for less than two per cent of MPs. For those aged between 20-40 years, the figure increases to just 12 per cent.
In most countries, there is a discrepancy between the minimum ages for voting and standing for election, impacting directly on the representativeness of a parliament in a country with a large youth population. In most countries, the minimum voting age is 18 years while the average minimum eligibility age for a candidate is just over 22 years. However, in a third of countries, the minimum eligible age for a candidate is 25 years or above.
Voter turnout among young people across all regions of the world is also worrying. In each region of the world, youth electoral participation has either been in serious decline for many years or is simply low, although there are individual national exceptions. Africa, where 65 per cent of the population is below 35 years and where the average age for an MP is lower than elsewhere, is nevertheless of particular concern due to low levels of youth voter turnout and youth participation in political protests.
Although a decline in the global average of voter turnout from 1990 onwards has been largely attributed to the drop in electoral participation among the youth, young people have been at the forefront of several recent mass movements for democracy and socio-economic rights. This includes the protests that led to the Arab Spring. The use of social media to make their voices heard is also a vital and growing force for change.
Nevertheless, young people remain on the political periphery and the case for concerted action to bring them into the political fold has never been more urgent.
IPU recommends a range of actions be taken to encourage greater youth political participation. This includes countries aligning the minimum age for voting and standing for election, establishing youth quotas in electoral laws for parliamentary representation and investing more in political and civic education for school children. Political parties have a similarly critical role to play. Youth outreach, quotas for young candidates and initiatives ensuring young people have a say in decision-making within political parties would go far in increasing youth participation and regaining trust in politics among disenfranchised youth.
“The energy, vision and beliefs of young people have to be harnessed if democracy is to live up to its name and be a thriving force for positive change,” President Radi urges. “Democracy is nothing if not an expression of all voices in society. We must do what it takes to get more young people into political parties, into parliament, into government - now.”
The recent election or nomination of more young people to government in countries such as France and Italy is a positive example.
As part of its efforts, IPU established a Forum of Young Parliamentarians within the 164-member Organization in 2013 aimed at garnering youth input on both institutional and political decision-making. It is also holding the First Global Conference of Young Parliamentarians on 10-11 October, 2014 in Geneva, with support from the Worldwide Support for Development, to find concrete ways to stimulate youth engagement and participation in politics. Both represent first steps of a larger IPU commitment on youth and politics.