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Young, Female and Diverse: Legislatures Begin to Change to Save Democracy


A session of the 139th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Geneva, October 2018. Changes in the makeup of national legislatures were pronounced in 2018, with a record number of women elected in America, for example. Such radical shifts in national lawmaking bodies could endure in 2019, yet younger people are not running for office in droves.

As many political analysts see democracy weakened by introverted, xenophobic parties and autocratic leaders, a glimmer of hope is offered by a new generation of candidates and voters. This year will test that optimism in a series of important elections around the world.

Changes in the composition of national legislatures were already being recorded before 2018 ended. In November, a record number of women were elected or re-elected to the United States Congress, raising the percentage of women to nearly a quarter of the 435 members of the House of Representatives and 25 percent of the 100-seat Senate. Nancy Pelosi is now House speaker after her Democratic party became the majority in that chamber.

Among the newcomers, some members arrived vowing to take on President Trump in any legal way possible, including impeachment. Among the women elected to Congress, two are Muslim and two are Native American — a first in both cases. Trump’s relationships with minority populations have been abysmal.

National legislators seem to be getting younger in numerous countries. In December, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported a still-small but rising percentage of legislators under age 30 over the last two years, edging to 2.2 percent from 1.9 percent. The Geneva-based IPU, with 178-member parliaments representing 6.5 billion people worldwide, began tracking ages of legislators in 2014 and has established an annual global conference for young parliamentarians.

Surveying women in politics, the IPU reported that 30 percent of the delegates to its annual assemblies are women, up from 7.7 percent four decades ago. The organization says it is committed to promoting gender parity.

Gabriela Cuevas Barron, a Mexican senator who has been chairperson of the Mexican Senate’s foreign relations committee, is now president of the IPU and the youngest person, at 39, to hold that office. She has been a prominent advocate for adherence to international humanitarian law and has taken a special interest in the welfare of migrant children.

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Cuevas recently said in a statement that she believed that by bringing more young people into decision-making, “we will make better decisions on the key challenges our societies face.”

Among the issues attracting the attention of young people are threats from climate change that they will face in the years ahead, making their futures and that of the children they may have uncertain.

The IPU has big hurdles to surmount, however. It found that more than 30 percent of 200 legislative chambers surveyed had no members under 30 years old. But members under 40 have increased to 15.5 percent from just over 14 percent in two years, and the under-45s have risen more than 2 percent.

Some gains have been noteworthy. In France, the average age of members dropped to 48 from 54 with the election of President Emmanuel Macron. Not all the changes are limited to northern Europe.

Africa, where numerous elections of special interest are happening this year, is making strides in democratizing governments, according to Mo Ibrahim, the Sudan-born British telecoms billionaire and philanthropist. He is known for awarding an annual prize (when he thinks it is deserved) to an African leader who has demonstrated responsible governance. Only five have been awarded in a decade, the most recent honoring Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia.

“Over the past decade, public governance in Africa remains on average on a moderate upward trajectory, mainly driven by progress in gender, health and infrastructure,” Ibrahim wrote for the Brookings Institution on Jan. 11, describing the findings of his foundation’s latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG).

“The 2018 IIAG shows that approximately three out of four African citizens live in a country where public governance has improved over the past 10 years,” he wrote. “Many positive trends emerge from this year’s index.”

He cited 15 of 34 countries that have accelerated their pace of improvement over the last five years, with Ivory Coast, Morocco and Kenya showing “the most impressive progression.” Overall, he added, “There are also recent and welcome improvements in rule of law and transparency and accountability, even if scores in the latter are still low.”

On the downside, he warns that demography — rapid population growth — is undercutting progress in some sectors, notably in economic growth and education. The number of working-age Africans between 15 and 64 years old may grow by another 30 percent over the next 10 years, leaving youth without jobs or adequate educational achievement.

Two large, competitive African countries made the list of Ten Elections to Watch in 2019, compiled by James M. Lindsay for the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York.

Nigerians will vote in a general election on Feb. 16. This is Africa’s most populous country, its largest economy and largest oil producer. There is a marked emphasis on youth among the electorate.

“Roughly 60 percent of Nigeria’s 190 million citizens were born after 1990,” the Council list says, “but many of its leading politicians were born before Nigeria’s independence in 1960. A ‘ready to run’ campaign is supporting young people seeking seats in the federal and state legislatures.”

The age of presidential candidate has been lowered from 40 to 35 (lower for gubernatorial races), to encourage younger people to run for offices.

South Africa will hold elections from May to August, at a date not yet determined. Opposition to the ruling African National Congress had been rising during the years of Jacob Zuma’s corrupt presidency. Then, early in 2018, Zuma was ousted as party leader and president and replaced by his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, which restored the ANC’s reputation somewhat but still leaves many problems unsolved, including an economic recession and a restless youthful population.

Gabriela Cuevas Barron, a 39-year-old Mexican senator, is also the youngest-ever president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. By bringing more young people into decision-making, she said, “we will make better decisions on the key challenges our societies face.”

In Asia, three important elections are scheduled: in Afghanistan, Indonesia and India.
Afghanistan will vote for a president — if violence does not derail the plans — on April 20, but the security situation has worsened in the country since Ashraf Ghani, the current president seeking re-election, has led a battered government, even as the Trump administration talks about reducing the US military presence. Young people, including women, have registered as candidates in previous elections, but some of them have been among the scores killed in the violence that often surrounds voting.

Indonesia holds a presidential election on April 17, amid ethnic and religious tensions. The current president, Joko Widodo, is seeking another term in the world’s most populous Muslim nation and the world’s third-largest democracy.

“It is also a young democracy grappling with the challenges of knitting together the interests and perspectives of more than 260 million people spread across more than 17,000 islands,” the Council report notes. “Appeals to sectarianism and cries of ‘fake news’ will likely will likely dominate the headlines as the election nears.”

The biggest prize in Asia will be India, where voters upset years of traditional coalition governments to sweep a Hindu nationalist party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) into power in 2014, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Like Trump, Modi relies on tweets and rallies as party supporters on his far right have engaged in violence and human-rights abuses in the name of a doctrinaire Hinduism. Attacks on women, Dalits (formerly known as outcastes) and Muslims are reported by a still-vibrant media and human-rights advocates on social media.

Another issue is at play in India, a country of 1.3 billion people that is likely to overtake China soon as the world’s most populous nation. The Congress Party, which governed India for decades after independence, with a few breaks, is fighting to return under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, a great-grandson of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi is also a grandson of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards in 1984; and son of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed by a Sri Lanka Tamil suicide bomber in 1991.

Rahul Gandhi is 48, young by the standards of many Indian politicians. He comes from a secular family. But his leadership raises the specter of dynastic privilege. It will be a tough choice to make for many Indian voters, when polls open in April or May.

In the Middle East, Israel is due to hold a legislative election before November, “but a vote may come sooner,” the Council analysts say. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to gamble that he can strengthen his party’s position in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, even as he faces corruption allegations. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria complicates Israel’s security in the unsettled region.

In the Western Hemisphere, Canada, on Oct. 21, and Argentina, also in October (on a date to be announced), are high among elections to watch on the Council on Foreign Relations list.

In Europe, the Council list includes two elections: Ukraine’s vote on March 31 and the multinational European Parliament May 23-26.

“Ukraine remains plagued by corruption, political and economic uncertainty, a Russian-sponsored insurrection and disagreement over whether its future lies with the West or Russia,” says the Council survey.

The European Parliament is also strained, facing “a growing rift with the United States; rising illiberalism in Central Europe, an increasing possibility of a ‘hard Brexit’ . . . and declining enthusiasm to rejuvenate EU institutions.” While the parliament is weak, “it does have the ultimate say in selecting the new president of the European Commission, the EU’s real powerhouse.”

Europe may seem orderly to those who watch its politics from more tumultuous countries. Not so, wrote Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister, in a column last October for Project Syndicate. The future of European democracy is at stake, he said.

“Pro-EU parties must make Europe’s place in the world a central issue of the parliamentary election campaign; otherwise, they will suffer a shattering defeat at the hands of the new nationalists,” Fischer wrote. “The nationalists want to return to the past; it is up to the pro-Europeans to offer answers for the future.

“Make no mistake: A nationalist victory next year would rock the EU to its core and throw it into another deep crisis,” he wrote. “It would represent a defeat for the fundamental values of the European project. Given the scale of the threat, pro-Europeans cannot count on business as usual. Recent upheavals in many member states’ party systems have altered the electoral calculus, and the pro-Europeans must adapt accordingly.

“In recent years, there has been much talk of the EU suffering from a ‘democratic deficit.’ But the fight for a majority in the European Parliament actually represents a major opportunity for democracy. Pro-Europeans need only wake up in time to seize it — or Europe’s enemies will.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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