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Who has the youth vote?

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Most commentators agree that the youth will have a greater bearing on results of the 2019 elections. It is not, therefore, surprising that among the most active members of all the major political parties are the youth. This leads one to the question, can young voters play a decisive role in the 2019 elections? I believe they should and they will.

It is clear that the main political parties in Malawi are busy and will still be busy to attract this voting block as the country gets closer to the national polls. In a country like Malawi—with an enormous diversity of languages, religions, and regional features—the issues which matter to the youth when they cast their vote vary across regions, states and from one constituency to another.

The youth are not immune to this characterisation; they are not a homogeneous group and taking their vote as a block now would be misleading. It is not only the issues of inflation, the rise of fuel prices along with corruption that are widely believed to be the issues on which the forthcoming youth votes will be based on come May 2019. What is positive about the youth is that across all the political parties in recent times we have witnessed the mobilisation of the youth on several social issues.

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It is my belief that that the young voters, especially those youths voting for the first time in May 2019, can have an extraordinary impact on the outcome of the elections. It is no surprise then that some political parties have already started chalking out strategies to attract the young voters of Malawi, by putting forward young candidates and reaching out to the youth in colleges and universities.

However impressive the vote share of the young electorate, those who believe that the youth votes will play a decisive role in the 2019 elections seem to overlook the characteristics and dynamics of Malawian politics. The analysis of the elections clearly indicates that the youth of Malawi have shown few tendencies to vote en-block for any political party at least in the last five elections (1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014). They have in fact remained very much divided between various political parties.

An analysis of policies, programmes and manifestos of various political parties suggests that there is no political party which is directly addressing and catering to the youth in Malawi. Some parties in the past like United Democratic Front and, now UTM, seem to marginally attract greater support from the youth for their political agenda, simply based on the age of their potential presidential candidates but they have hardly shown any effort in addressing the issues of the youth, with unemployment being the largest concern. Not only parties have lacked vision, even the youth has not shown a great effort to demand policies that respond to their concerns. Under these circumstances, the youth remains invisible as an electorate that deserves particular attention.

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This lack of addressing the youth in politics may backfire, as the fear persists that many of the young citizens may be reluctant to cast their vote in the upcoming elections. The parties that are now developing their strategies to mobilise the youth are most likely to fail in their approach. This is primarily due to the larger equation of identity which is also the biggest denominator in a person’s choice to vote.

The average Malawian has multiple identities of tribe, class, region and religion, besides the identifying factors of gender and age. These identities of the average Malawian voter are usually predominant and outshine the other identities. In the case of young Malawians, this means a division of the youth over their class and regional identities, rather than feeling united on the basis of age and the issues which concern them in particular.

Data from the Malawi Electoral Commission over the last elections have indicated that the gender and age identity of Malawian voters, including the youth, is very weak. This also becomes evident in the case of women voters: there is no mentionable example of any election whether at constituency or national level in which women have cast their vote for one particular party, even if the candidate was a woman, such as Loveness Gondwe (New Rainbow Coalition) in 2009, Late Abusa Hellen Singh (United Independence Party) and Joyce Banda (People’s Party) in 2014.

Political parties need to present before the young Malawian voter an innovative agenda which is achievable; simply installing a young leader with a catchy slogan will hardly attract an increasingly demanding electorate, especially the young, who are increasingly educated. However, it is up to the political parties who are contesting in the elections to come up with a positive and honest agenda which for the young voters will be worth voting for. The question that remains now is who among the parties will have the youth vote in 2019?

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