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Friday, 12 April 2013

Youths, Politics and Voting Age

Former MMD Lusaka Province Youth Secretary, James Lukuku recently launched his political party called the Republican Progressive Party (RPP). Mr Lukuku says the PF government has failed to address the plight of the youth who are leaders of tomorrow, hence his decision to launch RPP. According to him youths are think tanks who have the reservoir of knowledge to govern Zambia in a right way because elderly people have allegedly failed to run this nation. It is imperative that young people take over from old people.

The merits of a new party aside, what is interesting is Mr Lukuku's  implicit assessment that young people have failed to make an impact on the political structure of the country - and therefore need political help. The youths of course make the majority of the country but they remain "clients" and not power players. This comes as no surprise because youths have no "economic power" from which "political power" is derived.  And without political power they will remain just as they are. Jobless and poorly organised.

One of the big reasons youths have no political power (and by extension no economic power) is due to the voting age. At present young people cannot vote until until 18 years of age. The current Draft Constitution under consultation continues this with Article 74 - "A citizen who has attained the age of eighteen years is entitled to be registered as a voter and vote in any election by secret ballot". The voting is age is too high for our country and keeps many young people out of the political process.

Keeping the voting age at 18 instead of reducing it to 16 gives the impression to young people and to the rest of society that young people's views are not valid and young people are not real citizens. This all serves merely to perpetuate a society of the old. A society where the other extreme (those above 80 years and can barely add two numbers together are worshipped). In Zambia many of the youths are not having a say in the democratic process and it is not surprising that youth unemployment remain high! There’s a strong case for poor countries with low life expectancy reducing the voting age to 16.

The age limit is also vastly inconsistent. You can be taken to prison for murdering someone at the age of 7 (10). You can currently marry if your parents allow you at the age of 16 (though some want to change that). You can work, well as soon as you are ready! But you can’t vote until you 18. The real question of course is on what basis is the voting age set at 18?

The usual reason against reducing the voting age is that young people are ignorant. But if that is the reason, why not educate them more? Repackage the education so that they are better equipped citizens. More importantly there's no upper limit on voting - you can be senile and still vote! So if we allow people who are 90 to vote, why can't a 16 or 17 year old vote? They have more at stake in the political future of the country than a 80 year old!

At the end of the day of course this is about morality. Denying 16 and 17 year olds is actually no different from the denial of the right to vote for Africans under colonialism. It is strange therefore that the old guard who were not unable to vote freely under colonial rule, now keep many of our young people outside the electoral and political system. The practice was wrong then, and it is wrong now. More importantly unless we change this young people will remain jobs less and on the streets.

Changing the voting age of course is not a silver bullet. Not least because political power is entrenched by culture. In our society the older you are the more valuable you are regarded. So youths tend to be looked down on purely because of our culture. This is why the constitution imposes minimum age limits on public offices without any upper limits. There's a presumption that age matters in doing your job!  Which of course is silly. I know many people below the age of 30 years who can certainly do a better job than some of our "seniors" in power.

So in general we find that our culture has entrenched the political process. Which in turn leads to policies that are unhelpful to a key constituent. So it will take more than changing the voting age. But my view is that restructuring the voting process and removing age limits for public offices will help move us towards greater rebalancing of power. The lack of interest by youths is largely because they are not engaged in the political process early. And having lost them early they become lost from political process until they are in their 40s. .

Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013

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