Party politics is losing touch with civil society, most prominently youth. During the past months, we have discussed actions to include young people and their diverse positions on contemporary issues in politics with youth and young experts in Georgia and Germany. It has become clear that new forms of interaction between these increasingly disconnected groups are needed – and that the time is now!
A Comment by Frauke Seebass and Anna Kiknadze
One month after the 31 October parliamentary elections, Georgian politics are still in turmoil. Local and international expectations were high given the recent adoption of a new electoral law aimed at a fairer distribution of seats that could have cost the ruling party Georgian Dream (DG) its majority. In the end, according to the Central Election Commission (CEC) the party secured 73 out of 150 seats in the first round, with 17 seats still disputed in the second round on 21 November which all fell to GD, giving them a solid majority of 60 percent.
Since the first results were announced, opposition MPs refused to accept them, followed by widespread protests against the CEC. According to the OSCE, elections were conducted competitively and overall, fundamental freedoms were respected. The turnout was at 56.1 (first round) and 16 percent (second round) respectively. Coinciding with the drastic second wave of Covid-19, the ensuing political crisis seems to confirm the pessimism that was felt among many Georgians ahead of the elections – notably youth. In our ongoing project #GEOYOUTH2020, we discussed challenges to youth participation in politics with young people across the country and gathered them with solution approaches in our Manifesto.
Engaging youth in politics in Georgia
During these discussions 9 core obstacles to political youth participation were identified. While formal barriers like a lack of human and economic resources, political party structures excluding young people, and the absence of adequate platforms for engaging youth in political processes occupy a central place on the list of challenges, the general attitude towards the political environment remains rather critical. Political apathy and a lack of trust towards political parties as well as towards the polarised political sphere hampers the motivation of young people for more active engagement.
In order to promote economic empowerment and employment of young people, they demand a more inclusive work environment which will enable them – regardless of their political orientation, social status, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or physical abilities – to be employed. Low-quality education, limited access to information about social grants or internships, low-paying jobs and overall unemployment remain major stumbling blocks for this generation. It is important for young people that political bodies strengthen their practical and career-facilitating components in state internship programmes, increase mobility within parties, and provide wider spaces to interact and exchange with youth.
Given the level of polarisation, it is no surprise that Georgian youth finds political spaces limited and restricted. It is challenging for them to connect or affiliate with a particular political actor, as there is an obvious absence of political ideology among parties. Moreover, due to a lack of youth-oriented policy agendas young Georgians do not even see a possibility to participate in future decision-making processes. However, these obstacles to youth participation are not an issue particular to Georgia alone. While some factors can be contributed to the local environment, the Manifesto addresses challenges more broadly that can be found in democracies across the globe.
Young and choosy – Diverse challenges to political youth participation worldwide
In 2019, Polis180 implemented a comprehensive campaign targeting specifically young audiences prior to the European elections in Germany. The goal of the campaign “Jung&Wählerisch” was to empower young citizens to participate in the democratic process in multiple ways, including the vote. Similar to Georgia and other democratic countries, the voter turnout among youth in Germany is lower than among other age groups, increasing the already existing demographic disadvantage.
Claire Saillour, who coordinated our campaign, noted striking similarities in the issues raised by young people in Georgia and Germany. Notably, there seems to be little and unequal access to information about the elections, what is at stake, and the different choices that political parties are offering. Many young citizens take an interest in specific topics but do not identify with particular party programmes. In addition, many of them lack confidence in their own civic competences and a feeling of ownership in the democratic processes, thinking their voice will not be heard by politicians anyway.
In a hybrid public event in Berlin in October, we invited young experts and civil society representatives like Claire to discuss challenges to youth participation in politics more broadly, and how these can be tackled. A lack of representation is a recurring issue with various dimensions, including low numbers of young parliamentarians and the role of political party youth wings. Compared to Georgia, these organisations are more present in German party politics, but as many young people do not identify with particular parties anymore, neither do they join their youth wings – whose membership and diversity is consequently decreasing.
Another quite specific dimension is spaces for political participation of young people. This includes the lack of opportunities and physical places where they can meet, discuss, and get active, but also forms of engagement that differ from other generations. As an example, this age group is more likely to sign online petitions and join public protests but often does not organise beyond the streets, which inhibits their leverage and makes them less tangible to politicians to engage with. Crucially, while they face common challenges, “youth” is not one homogenous group, but debates among young activists remain largely under the radar.
Youth groups, like civil society organisations more generally are increasingly detached from party politics. As many of them strive for political independence, their recommendations tend to address either a very broad audience (such as “political parties”) or single politicians in specific events, which creates more direct links but does not yield sufficient pressure for meaningful change. Evidently, the gap between politics, civil society, and youth needs new and more flexible bridges to foster participation for the generations to come.
Where do we go from here?
Despite their overall pessimistic attitude, our #GEOYOUTH2020 participants and young experts provided tangible suggestions in order to refresh the political environment. They propose the following actions to increase participation and democratic pluralism:
Decision-makers/politicians/municipalities: Listen and communicate!
The fact that young people are more present in some policy fields than others does not mean they have nothing to say about the rest. Their representation should be increased throughout the policy spectrum, including through internal reorganisation and reshuffling of leadership, diversification of voting lists by adding younger candidates, and giving youth wings a more prominent role. Involve young people in the development of political programmes, and hold regular meetings for meaningful exchange! In order to support interaction and common learning processes, provide spaces for youth, especially in rural areas! They need to meet each other, talk, debate, learn, and create to develop their (political) potential.
Young people: Organise!
Take ownership of the issues particular to your generation. You can do this by becoming a member of a political party or youth wing, by joining a civil society organisation or creating your own. Even if you do not agree with everything a group represents – your voice can diversify debates and influence long-term strategies, and you will learn how parliamentary politics work. Take your arguments from the streets to the parliament and present them to the decision-makers. Use the experience of those already engaged and claim your space.
Everybody: Learn from and with each other!
If there is one thing we have learned throughout our engagement, it is that communication matters! Engage your audience through targeted campaigns and involve those you address – young people will know better how to reach their peers, for example. On a related note, diversity is key! This includes age, but also gender, education, rural and urban communities etc. Bringing in as many voices and angles as possible will benefit the discussion and fertilise pluralism. Last but not least, bottom-up approaches work and should be employed much more by democratic parties, but also by civil society groups to reach their full potential.
Let’s do this – together!
The European Union has a pronounced interest in the democratisation of their Eastern neighbourhood, manifest in the Eastern Partnership framework. The German government continues to invest large sums in the cooperation with civil society in this and other regions. Youth is given increasingly more importance in democracies worldwide, reinforced by official youth strategies as published in Georgia and Germany. Building on the ongoing discussion and recommendations by our young experts, it is now time to leave the beaten track and work on new ways of interaction between party politics, civil society, and youth in particular!
Learn more about our project #GEOYOUTH2020 here!
#GEOYOUTH2020 is funded by the Federal Foreign Office in the framework of the programme “Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia” and kindly supported by the German Embassy Tbilisi.
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.
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Frauke is a board member of Polis180 and active in the programme Perspective East, working mainly on the Western Balkans and the countries of the Eastern Partnership in the framework of EU Neighbourhood and Enlargement Policy. In addition, she works for the Berlin-based media NGO n-ost in a project promoting cross-border journalism across the continent. Among others, she studied Peace & Conflict Studies and Linguistics in Germany, The Netherlands, and Israel. Frauke loves Georgian nature, wine and toasting culture and dreams of becoming a brilliant tamada one day.
Anna is an active member of the programmes Cultural Politics and the Perspective East, focusing on the Eastern Partnership, the South Caucasus, and German-Georgian Relations. She has a background in International Relations (BA from Free University of Tbilisi, Georgia) and European Studies (MA from University of Bath, UK and Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany). She has been based in Berlin for the past 5 years, but at the same time remains actively engaged with social and political life of Georgia. In addition, she is the founder of an annual international ‘Ojos Negros Tango festival’ in Kazbegi, Georgia.