Georgia’s 2021 local elections: Youth at the democratic front line

Youth in Georgia is rarely involved in policy processes, both caused by and adding to political nihilism. This attitude was further amplified by a political crisis following the parliamentary elections in October 2020. Our joint Georgian-German project #GEOYOUTH2020 has engaged young people across the country in a conversation on how to amplify youth political engagement. As the next step in the run-up to the local elections in 2021, they take action in their communities this year!

A Preliminary Analysis by Anna Kiknadze & Frauke Seebass

 

Dealing with the post-election crisis

The 2020 parliamentary elections did not go silently in Georgia. The boycott by the  opposition, their withdrawal from parliamentary representation after allegations of voting frauds, the detention of top opposition leaders, increased concerns from European partners and their tireless attempts to mediate an inter-party dialogue, long-standing street demonstrations – all that paints a worrying picture of severe political crises in Georgia that lasted for months following the October elections. Alongside the political actors, Georgian citizens and especially youth looked at these developments with serious concern, and the already existing lack of trust towards political elites grew even stronger.  

Looking at the Georgian Central Election Commission (CEC) review, in the 2020 October parliamentary elections only 18,8 percent of total voters were from the age group 18-29. This is a slightly decreased number in comparison to the previous presidential elections in 2018, with 20 percent, and a more drastic change compared to the parliamentary election in 2016, where the same indicator was 21,4 percent. This continuous decrease during the last 5 years reveals essential problems of youth political participation in general, and electoral participation more broadly. 

As Nino Samkharadze, policy analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP), points out, there appears to be not enough space for young people to actively and directly engage in political processes. This tendency is manifested in increased structural barriers to political parties and institutions for youth, a highly polarised and turbulent political atmosphere, as well as general political apathy and a nihilistic  attitude among Georgian youth. Moreover, according to the Freedom House 2021 assessment for Georgia, despite the notably high number of civil actors in the country (including youth and other civil society organisations), they lack influence on key political decisions which is caused by deeply embedded structural hindrances. However, to make a long-term difference, it is essential for especially emerging democracies to have youth representatives in the formal political processes, where they have a say in formulating today’s and tomorrow’s politics.

Our Youth Manifesto is a document informed by 150 Georgian youths within the framework of our project #GEOYOUTH2020, and presents a list of challenges to youth political participation and their visions for solving them. Overall, nine common obstacles have been identified, including formal and structural challenges existing within political parties and political institutions, lack of opportunities due to poor formal & non-formal education, barriers caused by extreme low level of trust in political elites and in transparency of political processes as well as stereotypes toward ‘dirty politics.’ 

The Manifesto is a clear representation of the bottom-up approach from local youth across the country, and a proactive step towards supporting an inclusive political environment. Moreover, this theoretical outcome is now complemented with a second project: #GEOYOUTH2021 brings together youth groups across the country to tackle the problems outlined in the Manifesto practically in their respective regions and communities. 

 

Engaging Georgian youth in political processes

As we have shown, Georgian youth take a rather bleak stance towards politics, both on a national and local level. Contrastingly, the young people’s participation in #GEOYOUTH2020 clearly demonstrated that we had struck a chord while at the same time exposing an existential threat to democratic pluralism in Georgia: If young people are not involved in politics, important negotiation processes towards a pluralistic society are inhibited. Therefore, it is essential that this generation – the first one to grow up in a democratic system – is prepared for the discourses constituting it. This also resonates with the Georgian National Youth Policy Concept for 2020 – 2030 (For, With and By Young People), naming as its first priority Active Participation of Young People in Public Life and Democratic Processes.

A key component towards this goal is the Organic Law of Georgia on Local Self-Government adopted with major amendments in 2014. The next local elections are set for fall 2021, when representative councils (sakrebulo) and executive heads of municipalities will be elected directly by citizens. As power is traditionally centralised in the national government, reforms to local governance have been crucial to enable direct political participation of citizens at the local level and strengthen the role of smaller parties. Participation in local elections is low, especially among young people, not least due to a lack of trust in political institutions and a lack of knowledge about how to engage in politics on a municipal level. 

The European Union has initiated the Eastern Partnership programme in order to support these national processes, notably civil society and youth: As Ambassador Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth emphasised during our September panel discussion, young people hold a key position to ensure resilience of democratisation processes but lack representation and participation. Following up on #GEOYOUTH2020, we therefore want to take the proven methodology and networks gained from this successful interaction with youth in Georgia to the local elections. Together with experts, trainers from Polis180 and GIP, as well as selected project alumni, we will review and adapt the methodology implemented in 2020 to the local contexts.

Building on our thriving partnership and the dialogue initiated between our participants and political parties in Tbilisi in 2020, GIP and Polis180 brought together youths across the regions for a series of skill workshops, building on the challenges identified in our Youth Manifesto. Brokered by GIP, one of very few organisations accepted as non-partisan in an increasingly polarised society, active Georgian youth will be given grants to develop their own group initiatives and implement them in their communities during the course of the project. 

While they are always supported by our teams and experts, this will allow them to address the challenges identified in 2020, take ownership of implementing the change in their country, and promote youth participation among their peers. In addition, these collaborative practises and new skills have proven a viable tool to lower the bar for future cooperation, creating tangible examples for young people to aspire to, and paving the way for more durable structures of engagement.

Finally, one member of each team will be invited to Berlin, where we will bring them together with representatives of German and European politics, youth groups, and civil society more broadly, and focus on the role the Eastern Partnership framework can take to support youth participation in the negotiations on a national and international level. This will give a strong signal that youth engagement is a valued chapter in this multilateral partnership. 

By supporting young people in empowering themselves and each other, the participants will be given more than a one-time opportunity to engage with high-level politicians: they will create a forum to continue exchanging their ideas and cooperating beyond the project duration. The final goal is for them to realise their potential as political subjects and thereby strengthen pluralistic democratic structures long-term. 

 

Road to local elections 2021

In October, Georgia stands another test of its emergent democratic structures. Given the further loss of trust in political processes following the turmoil of the 2020 parliamentary elections, little engagement and a low voter turnout are expected. Many citizens, including youth, are not aware of the diverse ways they can engage with their local Sakrebulos and influence decision-making processes, making it easier for local politicians to pursue corrupt practices and thereby further fueling political apathy. 

To counter this effect, GIP and Polis180 joined forces once again to empower young people across the country for future political engagement. 8 projects have been chosen and will be implemented during the summer, bringing together communities and fostering engagement of young people in civic life. By supporting them to assume meaningful roles in society, we want to strengthen Georgian democracy at its core and make it fit for the future. 

More information on the supported projects will be published soon – stay tuned!

 

#GEOYOUTH2021 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.

#civilsocietycooperation

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.

Image via unsplash

 

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.

Frauke is 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.

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