Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Youth are key democratic stakeholders

Not only are the youth registering to vote, they are also contesting positions of political power at both council and parliament level according to IEC spokesperson Osupile Maroba. The IEC spokesman is happy that currently a sizable number of youth were elected city mayors and council chairpersons, a move that he believes will inspire other youth to emulate and enhance their peers’ participation in the country’s electoral processes.

The historical Batswana youth participation in the past general election by far surpasses the perception held by International Institute for Democracy Assistance (International IDEA) in a policy paper published last year. According to the policy paper, there is a general sense that traditional politics and representative democracy failed to attract the attention of younger cohorts who feel alienated from political processes on the African continent. The policy paper observed that young people between the ages of 15 and 35 constitute one-third of Africa’s population. However, youth’s influence remains limited.

Recent events have shown that youth are critical in bringing about social and political transformation in Africa. From the dissolution of apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1990s and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in 2011 to the ‘Yen a Marre” (Enough is enough!) and ‘Ma Carte d’Electour, Mom Arme’ (My voting card, my weapon) campaigns in Senegal in 2011-12 and the third-term revolution in Burkina Faso in 2014, young people remain at forefront of democratic struggles on the African continent.

When young people engage, authoritarian regimes may fall and countries’ political trajectories may shift. Nevertheless, African youth have been less involved in the aftermath of such critical engagements. Perceptions of exclusion have resulted in young people seeking ways to express their dissatisfaction.

When frustration reaches high levels, especially in transitional and fragile states, youth may turn to civil disobedience and violence. Therefore, the inclusion of youth in the electoral processes is crucial to longer-term stability and peace.

However, in the case of Botswana, the youth demonstrated that it does not necessarily need to be authoritarian regimes that need to be to forcefully overthrown. Even democratic states that do not meet the aspirations of the youth need to be taught a lesson, at the ballot box, so that future government will be compelled to play by the democratic rules.

In the case of Botswana, youth frustration was of a different format as it was primarily driven by high levels of unemployment and poverty that the youth saw the need to take to vote and express their simmering anger by voting an unprecedented large block of opposition candidates. It was clear after the election that the youth were not amused with the ruling party. This resulted in the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) preaching democratic reforms to appease the youth and the general populace.

Youth engagement in formulating tomorrow’s politics is crucial because inclusive participation is a fundamental political and democratic right. Younger cohorts find themselves in a different situation and their political and socio-economic priorities differ from those of their older counterparts according to the IDEA policy paper titled “Youth participation in electoral processes: new roles for African Electoral Management bodies”.

The paper notes that having grown up in a period of transformation related to the increased use of information and information technologies, young people bring new visions and ideas to the political sphere. They are, therefore key democratic stakeholders, a sentiment expressed in the African Youth Charter: Africa’s greatest resource is its youthful population and through their active and full participation, Africans can surmount the difficulties that lie ahead” as espoused by the African Union Commission in 2006.

Elections lie at the heart of democracy. Adequate participation in electoral processes is therefore an important way to secure youth’s inclusion in and contribution to the democratic process.

The policy paper further observes that for decades, ensuring youth turnout on election day has been a key focus for electoral management bodies (EMBs). However, there is a need to implement more sophisticated and multi-dimensional approaches to engage with the youth.

The task of an EMB include voter eligibility, receiving and validating the nomination of electoral contestants (including political parties and candidates; conducting the actual polling; as well as counting and tabulating the votes.

In addition, EMBs may also engage in activities related to voter registration, civic and voter education, and dispute resolution. In this context, EMBs have either a formal or an informal mandate to promote youth participation.

Formally, international obligations and commitments or national legislation may entrust EMBs with the responsibility to ensure equal opportunities for participation in electoral processes. Informally, such commitments might bestow on EMBs an implicit role in removing existing barriers to effective youth participation.

EMBs’ strategies and policies may also outline key objectives, programmes and activities as well as stakeholder partnerships, or set out strategies for the promotion of youth participation.

In this endeavour, Maroba said the IEC engages collaboration with Youth Ambassadors who interact with other youth to educate them on the importance of seamless and meaningful active participation. The IECs further collaborates with the American Embassy, the British Council and Friedrich Ebert Foundation to achieve the goals of educating the youth on the importance of participating in the electoral process in all its facets.

In terms of the policy paper, EMBs have traditionally focused on programmes and activities encouraging youth to vote in elections. However, civic and voter education programmes also increase young people’s commitment to democratic values and principles, their interest in political affairs and awareness of opportunities to engage, and their knowledge of how elections work in practice.

The use of language and images that appeal to the youth constituency has been critical to this line of work. Civic and education programmes implemented by EMBs can take several forms. First EMBs may work with ministries and authorities responsible for education to develop school curricula and materials on elections and democracy. In doing so, EMBs help build a foundation for responsible, participatory and engaged citizenship and awareness of citizen-state relations, roles and responsibilities.

EMBs in some countries according to the policy paper have also been involved in the organization of democracy weeks (e.g. in South Africa) and inter-school competitions whereby students compete with their peers on their knowledge on democracy issues (e.g. in Botswana).

The need to communicate with youth on their own terms has also led EMBs to engage with youth on social media platforms. However, EMBs need to be aware of issues related to their media presence, for example, effective planning as well as recruitment and training of expert social media content developers.  EMBs might need to develop social media policies or guidelines and monitor mechanisms to avoid postings that could compromise their impartiality.

EMB voter education can address young people’s motivation and preparedness to participate constructively in elections.

The policy paper recommends that the youth constituency in Africa is too large to remain on the margins of the democratic process and EMBs must engage in multifaceted programmes and start thinking more creatively about how to bring youth on board.

More importantly, EMBs need to start taking a more proactive approach to engaging with youth as voters, electoral candidates and electoral managers. This, in turn, requires EMBs to engage more effectively with key partners on youth-related issues. 


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