MYPLACE team members David Sichinava and Tsisana Khundadze, CRRC, Georgia on youth interest in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
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The upcoming parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 1, 2012, may become a turning point for Georgia. The country, which previously suffered from political instability, armed conflicts, corruption, overconcentration of power, relative media oppression, and weak opposition, can potentially turn from one-party dominated presidential republic into a plural parliamentary democracy. The political situation in the country has changed after October 2011, when Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili announced about his support for the opposition and formed a large political coalition, Georgian Dream, with an aim to end President Mikheil Saakashvili’s and his United National Movement’s eight-year-long era.
Despite the heated pre-election developments, interest in politics among young Georgians is relatively low. Based on CRRC’s annual Caucasus Barometer (CB) survey, young people are more engaged in partying, entertainment and leisure activities rather than participate in civil and political life (CB data are available here: http://www.crrc.ge/oda/?dataset=16). Moreover, they often look with suspicion at their peers who are active in politics. CRRC staff conducted in-depth interviews with six representatives of youth “wings” of different political parties in order to learn more about their political activism and the prevailing attitudes. According to an activist from Georgia’s ruling United National Movement’s (UMN) youth wing, “If you are engaged in politics, people look at you with suspicion and think that you are already ‘spoiled’, however, fortunately the situation is gradually changing.” Another respondent, a member of the major opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, said that “There should be no place for young people in politics; the fact that I’m here is due to the situation in the country, I and my counterparts want to make changes.” Thus, the young political activists are aware of the negative attitudes toward them.
According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, voters under the age of 26 compose about 16% of all voters in Georgia , which is a very significant share. Parties chase young voters — the job which is mainly done by youth wings of political organizations. For instance, the ruling UNM introduced a new strategy of recruiting and maintaining new members of youth organizations. In addition to employing young people to distribute flyers/posters, and attend the meetings, the UNM also organizes trainings, workshops, sports events, and conferences for the youth, thus attracting and engaging more students. In particular, the party aims at recruiting those young people who are more actively involved in academic life and who have more or less developed their professional interests. Other political parties also promote various projects that encourage university students’ involvement in politics. Interestingly, the representatives of the Georgian Dream claim that they enjoy high interest among young people and underline that they do not need additional efforts in order to attract supporters.
As the leaders of youth political organizations say, the majority of the young members became familiar with the activities of the party through their friends. Social networks such as Facebook are another growing source for recruitment of new activists. Besides ideology and prospects for personal growth, one of the most important factors influencing their decision to join the youth wing of the political organization is the personality of the leader. According to one respondent, the main reason why female outnumber male in their youth organization is the leader of the party: “women form two third of the young wing and the main reason for that is that they like [him]”. For others, leaders exemplify the force that can make changes.
Still, many young people prefer to stay uninvolved in politics, or even consider politics a dangerous endeavor. The interviewed young leaders named several reasons why the youth finds it relatively unattractive to join politics. First, there is a long-established negative attitude towards politics and politicians in Georgia. In this regard, young people, who are engaged in this “dirty business”, are sometimes considered as place-hunters because of the significant influence of the UNM on civil service appointments. Sometimes young people choose to join the UNM Youth Organization in order to secure jobs in public service rather than provide actual support for the Party or share its political ideology. It is also important to point out that those supporting opposition groups sometimes become victims of oppression from governmental structures. This video documents attack on young supporters of the oppositional Georgian Dream by unidentified persons:
In addition, the representatives of unknown groups walk during the opposition youth rallies with camera and record the faces of protesters. There have also been reports of intimidation of the family members of the activists, especially in the regions. Finally, there is a pressure from the peers, family members and acquaints who do not consider engagement of young people in politics to be desirable.
As one of the respondents stated, general problems in Georgian political processes include mistrust and extremely bad relations among political parties; this does not allow them to form constructive relations with each other – the fact which also contributed to the formation of negative public opinion. However, youth political organizations meet more or less frequently in the framework of different projects organized by the international organizations, such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS). They take part in joint conferences, training and discussion sessions, and other activities which contribute to the rise of political culture, knowledge, and the shaping of good relations between young politicians from different political parties. As one of the young political leaders put it, “If in the future we all stay in the politics, these relationships will be very important…and there will be no confrontation…and [unlike the older generation of politicians] we will be able to sit down and talk about things…” In this photo, young people wearing t-shirts of the ruling UNM and the main oppositional coalition, Georgian Dream, stand together (source: kvirispalitra.ge).
All these factors create a mixed background for youth engagement in political activities in Georgia. Yet, young politicians play a very important role in electoral campaigns and political life in the country. The two major political groups each report having from 7,000 to 10,000 activists from across the country who participate in setting and managing meetings, spreading information (leaflets, newspapers, etc.), and organizing flash-mobs as well as other activities in order to convey their political messages to the general public and, most important, to their peers. Political parties even nominate them as MP candidates. For example, the UNM nominated a twenty-one-year-old student as the tenth member of the party list. Also, the New Rights Party nominated a twenty-two-year-old woman as a majoritarian candidate.
Hence, despite the above-mentioned intricacies associated with political participation, there is a significant number of young people in Georgia who choose to be actively involved in party politics. Most of them consider themselves as future politicians, engage in personal and professional development, and are willing to make positive changes for the better.