This article highlights the age of candidacy laws across different countries and the history of activism that has been successful in removing legal hurdles to young people’s political participation.
“I think the old age of legislators is a problem. We have the world’s largest generation ever of adolescents and youth. So if decisions are being made by an age cohort that is decades above that and is not attuned to their perspective I think it’s a serious democratic deficit. I used to be of the view that people needed to come in to parliaments with some degree of maturity and background. I actually no longer think that. I think a parliament is a place where young people with fresh perspectives should be. And I think our political system should accommodate that.”
(Helen Clarke, Former New Zealand Prime Minister in an interview with the authors of the book, ‘Youth Without Representation: The Absence of Young Adults in Parliaments, Cabinets, and Candidacies’)
Globally, there is a near universal adoption of 18 as the voting age. However, there is significant disparity when it comes to standing as a candidate for various elections - national, state or local. Historically, restrictions to participation in the electoral process has been the norm. Women were denied the right to vote or hold office in several countries including the US and UK. In the US African American men were given the right to vote only in 1870. Canada had several property, gender and race qualifications for voting and by default, for candidacy. Age too, as a criteria for holding public office in modern democracies has been a common feature of electoral systems across the world.
However, scholarly literature examining the political significance of age in light of the glaring absence of young people in parliaments across the world continues to exhibit gaps (Godli et al. 2015). And if there is a general dearth of literature, there is a deep chasm when it comes to scholarship pertaining to India. This dearth of research can also be attributed to how the lack of representation of young people is seen as less problematic than that of other social groups where identity remains static - that of women, dalits, adivasis or indigenous people and so on. In a brief paragraph on the underrepresentation of young citizens in politics, Anne Philips writes, “The situation of women looks more obviously unfair (than that of young people) in that women will be under-represented throughout their entire lives” (Philips, 1995). Nonetheless, studies on socialisation indicate that belonging to a specific age group can shape one's social perspective and reflect shared experiences of certain historical events. These shared experiences can have long-term political implications as they are carried forward through time (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2014). Apart from the temporariness of age, it is also a concept which has different meanings in different societies and is laden with specific regional, cultural and social contexts. To be 30 years of age can be considered old in countries with low life expectancy and young in countries where most people live up to 80-85 years (Stockemer and Sundström, 2022). Different cultures perceive age differently as well. For instance, in the west, a lot of people are getting married at an older age than those in Africa (Stockemer and Sundström, 2022).
It must be noted that in existing discussions about the level of engagement of young people in formal politics, the debates on whether they are disengaged or active in creating new forms of political engagement has focused on young people's role as voters and social movement activists. Little attention has been given to their representation in political positions. Moreover, when youth representation has been discussed, the focus has been on mechanisms of policy consultation, such as youth councils and youth parliaments, which aim to provide young people with a platform to voice their opinions on policy proposals and political debates (Shepherd and Patrikios, 2013; Matthews 2001).
Apart from reducing the dearth of literature, there is also a need to cohesively put together the history and evolution of age of candidacy laws in various parts of the world. Such an effort can help us put things into perspective, especially in the context of India’s scenario - a country with a majority of the population being below the age of 30, while the average age of parliamentarians remains around 57 as of 2021. In the first section this paper aims to help the reader look at age of candidacy laws in certain countries as well as the representation (or lack thereof) of young citizens in their parliaments. The second is an attempt to gain perspective on movements and activism to reduce the age of candidacy specific to certain countries but also at an international level. This section begins with delineating the approaches that have been used in existing literature as well as by activist groups to frame the problem as well as to buttress the demand for better representation. This includes lack of representation in terms of data, but also why representation matters; age as an arbitrary criteria; young people’s political participation in various countries and contexts; and the concept of intergenerational justice. Further, this section looks at movements and associations in specific countries that have worked on advocacy for lowering the age of candidacy. Finally, the paper looks at the situation in India in terms of existing laws and its historical context, age in context of India’s political culture, and the potential for change.
Age of candidacy laws in different countries
Countries considered to be successful democracies are also gerontocracies. This refers to political systems where older individuals have greater opportunities to achieve leadership positions and where they are disproportionately represented in these positions (Magni-Berton and Panel, 2021). However, several democracies across the country have at least removed legal and constitutional hurdles to young people’s participation by reducing the age of candidacy to 18. This section will explore age of candidacy laws in various countries, as well as the representation of young citizens below the age of 35 in their parliaments.
To be eligible for elections to any of the parliaments, assemblies, or councils in the United Kingdom, whether at the devolved or local level, an individual must be at least 18 years old. While the age to vote was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1969 in the UK, the age criteria to stand for elections was lowered to 18 only in 2006 by the Electoral Administration Act (Electoral Administration Act, 2006). The average age of MPs is 50 in the UK as of 2021. (UK in a changing Europe, 2021).
Since 1979, the average age of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the United Kingdom has remained relatively stable, hovering around the 50-year-old mark with a slight upward trend. The lowest average age of MPs at a general election was recorded in 1997, when it was 49.3 years, while the highest average age was observed at the 2005 general election, at 51.2 years. Interestingly, the average age of MPs tends to be lower when there is a change of government, as newly elected MPs are typically younger than those they have replaced. After the 2019 General Election, the average age of MPs was 51 years. The most populated age bracket of MPs between 1979 and 1997 was the 40-49 age group, whereas since then, the 50-59 age bracket has been the most heavily represented in Parliament. As of 2020, the youngest MP serving in the House of Commons was Nadia Whittome at 24 years and the "Baby of the House". Prior to her election, Mhairi Black held this title as the youngest sitting MP. Meanwhile, the oldest sitting member of Parliament is Sir William Cash, who was 80 years old in 2020. However, it's worth noting that the longest continuously serving MP, also known as the "Father of the House," is Sir Peter Bottomley, who was 76 years old (Watson, 2020).
Overall, while the average age of MPs in the UK has remained stable over the years, there have been some notable changes in the age distribution of members, with younger MPs becoming a more visible presence in the political landscape in recent years.
United States of America
For specific federal offices, Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that members of the House of Representatives be at least 25 years old and have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years. Article I, Section 3 sets the minimum age for senators at 30 years old and that they have been a citizen for at least nine years. Finally, Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution requires that the President be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and have been a resident of the United States for at least 14 years (United States Constitution). States in the US have set different age requirements for various public offices. California, Ohio, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin are the only states where 18 is the minimum age for all public offices.
The situation in the United States, however, continues to reflect a culture where older men are taken far more seriously as political representatives. As of the end of 2021, many prominent politicians in the United States are over the age of 65. President Joe Biden is 79 years old, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is 71, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 79, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 80. During the 2020 presidential election, both major candidates were in their 70s, with Joe Biden being the oldest person to ever hold the position. The average age of representatives in the United States' lower house is 58 years old, which is significantly older than the average American. This age trend is not limited to the leaders of the two major political parties but extends throughout the political system. The 117th Congress of the United States, which served from January 2021 to January 2023, was notably one of the oldest in history. This age disparity between politicians and the general population raises questions about youth representation in politics and the potential for younger voices to shape policies and decision-making (Sundstrom and Stockemer, 2022).
While the minimum age requirement to become President is 45 years, Article 3 of the Chinese constitution states “All citizens of the People's Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 shall have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of ethnic status, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status or length of residence.” (The Election Law of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses of the People’s Republic of China)
The median age is around 37 years in China. In the 13th National People’s Congress, there were 2,980 delegates, with an average age of 52 years, and the majority falling within the 50-59 age bracket (1,632 delegates or 54.8 percent). The youngest delegates were just 22 years old, while the oldest delegate, Ms. SHEN Jilan from Shanxi, was 88 years old and has been a delegate since the first NPC. An interesting trend emerged when examining the demographics of the delegates. As age increased, there was a greater likelihood of being a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), male, and of Han ethnicity, the dominant ethnic group in China. The 50-59 and 60-69 age groups, which include most of the country's central and provincial Party and government leaders, also have a lower representation of ethnic minorities (10.5 percent) and females (16.7 percent) (NPC Observer, 2018).
In Canada, the right to vote and be a candidate in federal elections was initially limited to men over 21 years old who met certain property qualifications, while women, Indigenous peoples, and some religious groups were excluded. Although there were gradual improvements over time, such as removing racial and religious barriers in 1960, it was not until 1982 when the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was established that all citizens were granted the right to vote and be a candidate. This Charter also lowered the voting and candidacy age to 18 and restricted voting to Canadian citizens, though British subjects who were eligible to vote in 1968 retained their rights until 1975 (Elections Canada, 2014).
The average age of MPs in Canada is 53 years as of 2021 with a little less than 1 percent of MPs below the age of 30 and 5 percent under the age of 35. On the other hand, over 36 percent of MPs are between the ages of 41 and 60, and 16 percent are above 61 years (WARP Dataset). While the average age of citizens in Canada is around 41 years, representation of those above 60 is 15 percent more than those between 18 and 30 years.
In Australia, citizens are eligible to be nominated to both the Senate and the House of Representatives at the age of 18. The Electoral Act 1918 was amended in 1973 lowering the age of candidacy for parliamentary elections from 21 to 18 years (Commonwealth Electoral Act, 1973). As of 2022. there are 151 MPs in Australia’s parliament and the average age in it is 51.6 years. Less than 1.5 percent of MPs are below the age of 30, around 4.6 percent are below 35 and around 82 percent are above 41 years (WARP Dataset).
The situation in Japan mirrors India in a few ways. The age of eligibility to run for election in Japan is 25 for the House of Representative and 30 for the House of Councilors. The Japanese parliament, known as the Diet, is often referred to as a "silver democracy" because it is dominated by older politicians. In fact, young people are almost completely absent from this elected assembly, as shown in a report by Sota in 2018. On the day the parliament was formed in 2017, only 2.6 percent of the members were 35 years old or younger, and only 7.8 percent were 40 years old or younger. Even Prime Minister Abe's cabinet, formed in 2017, did not have a single minister who was 40 years old or younger (Sundstrom & Stockemer, 2022). The lack of representation of young people is considerably more pronounced in countries where the law itself mandates an older parliament.
Movements to lower the age of candidacy across the world
Movements advocating for removal of age criterias to contest elections, or to lower it to 18 years have put forth this demand using various approaches, arguments and facts. The rationale used by movements to reduce the age of candidacy typically involves the belief that young people should have a greater voice in political decision-making. They argue that young people have important perspectives and ideas to contribute and that excluding them from candidacy denies them the opportunity to make a difference in their communities and nations. Proponents of lowering the age of candidacy also argue that young people are often disproportionately affected by political decisions, such as policies related to education, employment, and climate change. They argue that allowing young people to run for office would provide them with a platform to advocate for issues that directly affect them. Additionally, some movements argue that young people are capable of handling the responsibilities of political office, citing examples of young politicians who have successfully served in elected positions. They also point to the fact that young people are legally allowed to engage in other activities that require significant responsibility, such as joining the military or serving on juries. In the context of the United States, John Seery writes,
“..eighteen to thirty-year-olds (the age limit for a MP in the Rajya Sabha) can buy cigarettes, donate organs, play the lottery, drive cars, fly airplanes, shoot guns, start businesses, own homes, sign contracts, have consensual sex, get married, get divorced, have children, have abortions, join the military, serve as jurors, and be tried in court as full adults, but for some reason they are still branded, as an entire group, as somehow too immature and too inexperienced to run for one or more categories of elected office." (Seery, 2011).
Overall, movements to reduce the age of candidacy see it as a way to promote greater youth engagement in politics and to ensure that young people have a voice in shaping their futures. Apart from this, lack of representation, arbitrariness of age due to lack of scientific evidence, student activism and intergenerational equity are frameworks used by the youth rights movement across the world especially to lower the age of candidacy.
Lack of representation
The underlying rationale buttressing movements to decrease the age of candidacy world wide is that “Youth are under-represented in political institutions, with less than 2 percent of parliamentarians worldwide aged under 30.” (OHCHR, n.d.) Whether it is countries in the west, Africa or Asia, the average age of parliaments is consistently higher by a wide margin than the average age of the world - 28.5 (UNDESA, 2013). Globally, young adults who are 35 years old or younger make up only 10 percent of all parliamentarians and a mere 3 percent of all cabinet members. This indicates that this age group is significantly underrepresented in these positions, where the ratio fails to meet even one young adult for every three parliamentarians and one young adult for every ten cabinet members (Sundstrom and Stockemer, 2022).
Over the last thirty years, the proportion of legislators who are 35 years old or younger has remained between 0 to 14 percent in Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In 2001, the Australian parliament had no members who were 35 years old or younger, which was the lowest proportion of young parliamentarians among the four countries. Conversely, Emmanuel Macron's 2017 parliament had the highest percentage of young MPs, with almost 15 percent of members being 35 years old or younger at the start of the parliamentary term (Sundstrom and Stockemer, 2022). As per data collected by Joshi, in the case of South Asian countries, despite young people under the age of 40 comprising about three-fourths of the population, their representation in parliament is very low. The percentage of members of parliament under the age of 40 is only 21.5 percent, which creates a representation gap of 52.7 percentage points compared to their population share. Even when excluding those under 20 years old, young adults between 20 and 39 still make up a significant portion of the adult population in the region, with a representation gap of 27.6 percentage points. This gap is almost as high as the gender representation gap of 32.6 percentage points (Joshi, 2014). Thus, when it comes to the political sphere, young citizens, like women have been described as an ‘excluded majority’ (Joshi, 2014).
The visible absence of young people in cabinets and candidacies is observable. However, the problem lies in our inability to understand the problem and put forth solutions for it. There is a lack of knowledge and systematic information regarding the age distribution of parliamentarians, and there are limited resources available to promote the involvement of young people in electoral politics. The information that does exist is often brief and mentioned in case studies focused on other topics such as internal party democracy, candidate selection procedures, or women's representation. For instance, Scarrow (1999) addressed internal party democracy, Reiser (2014) looked at candidate selection procedures, while Darhour and Dahlerup (2013) focused on women's representation.
The main assertion made keeping in mind how underrepresented young people are in parliaments across the country is that given young people make up a significant portion of the population, it is fair and just to ensure they have more than a symbolic representation in legislative institutions. This is important for upholding democratic values and legitimacy. Apart from this, representation is also significant when it comes to drafting inclusive policy. When a significant portion of the population is excluded from political discussions and decision-making, their policy concerns may not receive the attention they deserve. This can result in their resources and contributions to politics being overlooked, which ultimately harms society as a whole. It is crucial to involve young people in politics because they have a unique perspective that can help prevent issues that affect them from being ignored (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2014). Involving young people in parliaments and other elected assemblies can have a significant symbolic impact. It can motivate younger citizens to participate in politics by demonstrating that politics is accessible to them and by providing potential role models (Bouza, 2014). This is particularly important given that many young people are losing interest in formal political activity. Youth participation in politics can encourage active citizenship and provide new opportunities for civic engagement, education, and learning about government. This can ultimately strengthen young people's sense of social responsibility.
Representation of social groups has been contested as a useful way of truly including the group in democratic processes for there is no empirical evidence that those in positions of power will necessarily shape policy or make decisions in favour of that group or constituency that elected them. However, legislative presence of underrepresented groups has the potential to be important in shaping an inclusive system of governance (Philips, 1995 and 1998).
The effect of a generation’s socialisation on political perspectives has been used to highlight why it's important to represent members from different age cohorts. Scholars have studied the relationship between generational politics and the representation of young adults. Political preferences of age groups can be influenced by ‘life-cycle effects’ (Highton & Wolfinger, 2001), such as an individual's position in education, labour market, or retirement. On the other hand, generational or cohort effects can shape political behaviour later in life, as shared experiences of a cohort can influence political perspectives and thereby their ideas about policy which they will shape according to these life cycle effects (Kissau et al., 2011). Differences in education, health, technology, and other factors between generations can also lead to generational conflict (Braungart & Braungart, 1986). Additionally, political perceptions of a cohort can be shaped by significant political events in a country's history, particularly in times of war, major conflicts, or political transitions. For example, in South Korea, there is a group of MPs called the "386" generation who protested against the military dictatorship when they were young (Shin, 2005). They have different political views than the older generation as the latter’s youth was informed by a more militaristic nationalism, conflict with North Korea and so on. Similarly, studies conducted in Switzerland found that older and younger people have different opinions on the "war on terror", same-sex marriage, and government intervention in the economy (Kissau et al., 2011).
Democratic theory emphasises the participation of all age cohorts in national assemblies to promote inclusion, a core principle of democratic government. Assemblies are expected to be representative of the population, including major demographic divisions of gender, class, ethnicity, and age. Advocates of maximalist conceptions of democracy value the inclusion of different age groups as a means to incorporate major social groups sharing differing interests due to life-cycle and generation-specific effects (Joshi, 2013).
Age as an arbitrary criteria
Age as a criteria to ascertain and establish political maturity and understanding has been challenged as a notion with no empiricism (Reidy, 2015). The argument states that setting an age threshold above 18 for candidacy in elections is arbitrary. Countries such as Finland, the Netherlands, and Denmark have allowed all adults aged 18 and over to vote and become candidates, which is a simpler and more appealing option. The choice of a higher age requirement for candidacy is subjective, as there is no scientific evidence to suggest emotional maturity increases at a specific age. Youth organisations have campaigned to lower the age of candidacy and voting, arguing that full political participation rights should include both (Reidy, 2015). At what age does a person become equipped to undertake political responsibility? There are as many answers to this question as there are people in this world. Youth rights movements have asserted that political maturity depends less on age and a 21 year old can be as driven, insightful and capable of handling public office as a 50 year old.
Intergenerational equality and justice
Various contemporary social issues, including that of the climate crisis, have been framed within the context of intergenerational equity (Weiss, 2008; Sanson and Burke, 2019). Intergenerational equity in social, economic, psychological, and political contexts is an idea of fairness or justice in relationships between children, youth, adults and seniors, especially in terms of interactions, treatment and social location (Miller et al., 2010). The question of young citizens' representation in public offices has similarly been articulated using the values informing intergenerational equity (Bidadanure, 2015).
The concept of intergenerational justice and equity when juxtaposed with youth political representation, bases itself on similar logic arising out of generational politics and life cycles. Notwithstanding vast diversity and individual subjectivity, each generation displays their own social, political, cultural and psychological characteristics informed by larger processes, events, and changes. Equity and justice for a specific generation would mean inclusion of a perspective that is unique to that generation. Intergenerational justice is doubly important in context of the problems the world collectively faces today - sustainability, climate change, resource depletion, and inequality. It is increasingly argued that those who will bear the brunt of these issues should have a say in framing policies to confront and solve them. The youth encounter significant challenges within their social spheres to establish professional paths and structure their lifestyles. They undergo fragmented, unstable, prolonged, and unpredictable periods of change when transitioning into the realm of employment and maturity (International IDEA, 2017). This crucial stage needs to be given a platform in decision making lest the older generations forget the journey that led to their stable present. Moreover, conflict is not the only way to look at multiple generations and it is not necessary that interests of two generations will always be contradictory. There exists a false binary (International IDEA, 2017) of consistent conflict over resources between older and younger generations which must not be overplayed. It is important to visualise a collaborative effort towards democracy building.
Active political participation of student groups outside mainstream politics
In countries across the world, young people have found ways to make their voices heard in matters of political importance. Those advocating to remove age legislations curbing youth political participation often use these instances of political activism by young people to shed light on their commitment to political transformation, a testimony to their political capabilities and maturity. Whether it was agitations against the Vietnam war in the United States; student movements and protests in the Arab Spring; or closer to home, the student protests against price-rise and corruption leading up to the National Emergency in 1975 as well as the Anti-Emergency movement in India, younger generations have shown an understanding and involvement in national as well as international politics and an ability to articulate their needs, aspirations and demands. University students have the potential to strongly influence public opinion through their active political expression. When the government mishandles such student actions, it can lead to political instability (Kamikubo, 2019).
A good example of this is the student demonstrations that took place in the UK from November to December 2010, where students protested against proposed tuition fee increases under the austerity financing of the Conservative Party administration led by David Cameron. Although the government passed the bill for the fee increase, the student movement gained significant social acceptance and drew attention to the false promises of politicians (Brooks et al., 2014). The National Union of Students (NUS), which is part of the European Students Union (ESU), led the movement. Since the NUS is not subsidised by the British Department of Education, the students could lead the protest (Kamikubo, 2019). The NUS is known for being ideologically neutral and not affiliated with any particular political party, thus allowing for a free exchange of opinions and beliefs among students. The NUS primarily engages in organising free and lively debates, and occasionally stages demonstrations related to important political issues. However, their activities do not involve violent behaviour. As a mature and influential organisation, the NUS has gained people’s trust, and the UK government cannot ignore its existence when making important decisions (Kamikubo, 2019).
Another example of a deeply politicised community of students and young people is Hong Kong. In 2014, the Umbrella Movement was led by pro-democracy activists, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism. They protested against China's decision to impose strict qualifications on the Chief Executive election in 2017. The demonstration was attended by thousands of students and citizens who occupied major roads, leading to the police firing tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. The Chinese government opposed the movement and warned foreign media and governments against supporting it. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, refused to consider Hong Kong protest claims and resigned. Financial institutions and schools were temporarily closed, leading to criticism from some Hong Kong citizens. The movement failed, but Scholarism, a student organisation that played a central role, made an impressive presence. Scholarism was formed in 2011, mainly comprising junior high and high school students born in the 1990s. It successfully opposed China's plan to introduce mainland patriotic education in Hong Kong by mobilising students and parents. Afterward, its members joined universities and played a significant role in the Umbrella Movement alongside the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Despite setbacks, the youth movement in Hong Kong formed a political party and became a new political force. They were successful in integrating into mainstream politics due to the age of candidacy being 21 years (Kamikubo, 2019).
Movements in different countries
The UK had seen an articulation of the demand to reduce the age of candidacy from young people who had formed associations to formally assert their demands and needs. The British Youth Council played an important role in this regard. Apart from publishing various reports, lobbying with the government and other progressive organisations, student organisations and their participation in the UK’s national politics were factors that added vigour to the demands to reduce the age of candidature. “Young people believe that the age to stand as candidates for local, regional, national and European elections should be 16, as should the age to become a trustee of a charity. Young people have significant responsibilities to society at the age of 16 and can have significant responsibilities in the private sector as company directors; this inconsistency should be rectified. Young people have lots to offer and the decision of their appointment to positions of political authority or governance of organisations should be in the hands of the electorate or membership respectfully.” (British Youth Council, 2008)
“BYC believes that at the age of 18 a person may hold elected office. A candidate's breadth of life experience is something that can be evaluated by the electorate... BYC strongly believes that the age of voting should be lowered to 16 and candidacy age should be lowered to 18…” (British Youth Council, 2003) Eventually, in 2006, the Electoral Administration Act reduced the age of candidature to 18 years.
"Not Too Young To Run" is a campaign that advocates for the reduction of age limits for political offices, as well as increased representation of young people in politics.The campaign was launched in 2016 in Nigeria by a group of young activists who recognized that age limits for political office were hindering the political participation of young people. The movement gained traction and spread to other countries in Africa, and eventually to other parts of the world.
In May 2018, the campaign achieved a major victory when the Nigerian government signed the Not Too Young To Run bill into law, which reduced the age limits for running for various political offices in the country. This move was seen as a significant step towards greater youth participation in Nigerian politics. The Not Too Young To Run campaign has continued to push for similar reforms in other countries, and has also advocated for greater youth representation in decision-making positions at all levels of government. In addition to advocating for policy changes, the campaign has also sought to empower young people to participate in politics and engage with their communities. The movement has organised training programs, mentorship opportunities, and other initiatives to support young people in their political aspirations. Overall, the Not Too Young To Run campaign has been instrumental in bringing attention to the need for greater youth participation in politics, and has helped to create a more inclusive and representative political landscape in many countries around the world (Nigeria’s Youth and Politics, 2019).
Turkey made two significant changes to its parliamentary eligibility age requirements in recent years. The first took place in 2007 when the minimum age was lowered from 30 to 25 following the Young MPs Now campaign, which was driven by youth organisations and councils. A second reduction occurred in 2017 after a constitutional referendum, which brought the minimum age down to 18. The impact of these changes was highlighted in the 2018 elections, as an 18-year-old female high school student became the youngest-ever candidate for a parliamentary seat (Lowering the Age of Eligibility to Run for Office —, n.d.).
The Youth-Decide Campaign is an initiative led by a group of youth-focused civil society organisations in Malawi, including Network for Youth Development, Young Politicians Union, Youth and Society, MHUB, and YONECO. The primary objective of the campaign is to encourage and facilitate youth participation in shaping the development and governance agenda of the country, both during the 2019 election cycle and beyond. The campaign is based on the belief that the youth, who make up the majority of the population, have a unique opportunity to reflect on the current state of the country and drive their aspirations through organised engagement. The initiative was developed following extensive consultations with young people and other stakeholders in Malawi. Among its goals, the campaign seeks to achieve a voter turnout of at least 90 percent among registered youth voters during the 2019 tripartite elections. It also aims to increase youth representation in political party structures, as well as in the National Assembly, Local Government Councils, and other local governance structures (Youth Decide, 2019).
While movements and campaigns targeted only at reducing the age of candidacy are few, there are several that have been campaigning to reduce the voting age such as the Vote16 movement.
Efforts at an International level
Non-governmental organisations have been launching new programmes to identify and train young people to become political leaders, curb political apathy and create systemic policy changes to integrate young citizens into electoral politics. In 2013, the United Nations (UN) appointed a special envoy on youth and published a report titled "Enhancing youth political participation throughout the electoral cycle," which aimed to strengthen the participation of young people in politics and public institutions. The UN also developed a Youth Strategy for 2014-2017, with the core objective of promoting greater youth engagement in politics (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2014). The Inter-Parliamentary Union has led sustained efforts to create a global call for lowering the age of candidacies and increasing the number of youth MPs worldwide with their 'I Say Yes to Youth in Parliament!' Campaign. Apart from these specific examples, international organisations, youth councils and ministries across various countries have made policy recommendations and submitted reports to concerned authorities to remove age related legal barriers so as to create a better relationship between young people and public institutions (Inter-Parliamentary, 2014; OECD, n.d.).
The Indian scenario
The minimum age requirement for the Lok Sabha (lower house/House of the People) is 25 years and for the Rajya Sabha (upper house/Council of States) is 30 years. These provisions can be found in Article 84 of the Indian constitution. The average age of MPs in the Parliament of India is over 56 years in 2019 making the difference between the average age of citizens and MPs close to three decades. Setting age criterias itself was a contested process during the drafting of the constitution. Article 84 (Article 68-A, as per the Draft Constitution of 1948) was not a part of the initial Draft Constitution, 1948 but was tabled by the Drafting Committee as an amendment on 18th May 1949. It laid down qualifications for membership of the Parliament (Constitution of India, n.d.). B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairperson of the Drafting Committee provided clarification on the intention of this provision. According to him, although any eligible voter can run for elections, they must possess certain "elevated" qualifications. These qualifications ensure that a Parliamentarian has the necessary experience and knowledge to carry out their responsibilities efficiently. By incorporating these additional requirements, the provision aims to attract more capable candidates to run for Parliament.
There was considerable critique to these provisions by different members of the assembly. Prof. Shibban Lal Saxena said,
“As has been pointed out there have been cases in the world where younger men than 25 years of age have occupied the highest position. The case of the younger Pitt was just cited: Shankaracharya became a world teacher when he was 22 and died when he was only 32. Alexander had become a world conqueror when less than 25 years of age and died when he was 32. Our country of 300 millions may produce precocious young men fit to occupy the highest positions at an age younger than 25 and they should not be deprived of the opportunity….This question of age should have no connection with the qualification of a man to become a candidate for election…” (Constituent Assembly Debates, 1949)
Challenging the amendment, Mr. Tajamul Husain said, “I am of opinion that the qualification of a person to fill a seat in the Parliament is that he should be a voter on the list. The moment a man's name is on the voters' list you cannot prevent him from either standing for election or voting. The election Officer will be there and after the identification is completed nobody can prevent him from voting. If he is not 35 but 25 why prevent him from standing as a candidate? The ordinary principle of law is that if a person can vote he can also stand for election. This amendment will go against a well recognised principle as it will mean that a voter cannot stand for election.” (Constituent Assembly Debates, 1949)
With this, one can see that the arbitrariness of age as a criteria for contesting elections had been articulated well by members of the Constituent Assembly. However, the age criteria remained with a minor amendment of reducing the age criteria for the Rajya Sabha from 35 to 30.
The high percentage of legislators above the age of 40 years in countries like Canada or the US does not reflect as troubling a problem for a lot of these are ageing societies (of course, that does not justify underrepresentation of the youth). However, the Indian situation is different given that over half the country’s enormous population is below the age of 30. India’s youth is also politicised with young people actively participating in politics especially via student unions in educational institutions even before independence and to the present day (See Oommen, 1974; Chopra, 1978). However, the integration of this politicised group into mainstream politics is an arduous task given that it takes years for people to become eligible candidates. Moreover, the political culture in India, like other countries, associates experience and capability with age and this reflects in the composition of the parliament. Almost all Prime Ministers of India have been above 50 years of age.
Reducing the age of candidacy is not present in the mainstream political realm in terms of political parties making this an agenda to work on, or inclusion of this in the National Youth Policy. There continues to be resistance when it comes to accommodating a demand to lower the age of candidacy (“Minimum Age for Contesting Elections to Change? What Election Commission Told Parliamentary Panel,” 2023) Rallying to reduce the age of candidacy is at a nascent stage in the country and is being undertaken by organisations working on youth rights. The biggest argument in favour of this is the rich and vibrant history of student politics in India apart from the disproportionate representation of young people in comparison to their population.
The Indian constitution was framed about seventy years ago, during a time when literacy rates were lower, and there was a severe shortage of skilled workers. The political landscape was dominated by seasoned veterans. However, things gradually began to change, and the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of student leaders. These young leaders played a significant role in various movements, such as the Nav Nirman Movement of Gujarat and the student movement in Bihar. Many of these leaders were not even 25 years old. Even during the Emergency, which saw the incarceration of several young leaders, they gained political experience and maturity. Present-day politics in Gujarat and Bihar are heavily influenced by these movements, with many of their leaders emerging from this background. Interestingly, until a few decades ago, being 25 was considered too old to be selected for the civil services. However, with time, the age limit was raised to 30. So, if someone under 25 could serve as a district magistrate or superintendent of police, we must ask why they do not qualify to be an MP or legislator (Ahmed, 2017).
Activism to lower the age of candidacy in various countries, especially that of the west, have been successful in removing legal hurdles to young people’s political participation. Such a movement is at a very nascent stage in India, especially in the context of several complex problems that tend to occupy a position of priority for activists, NGOs and the state - be it caste inequalities, gender justice, trafficking, communal violence and so on. However, there is an effort to create spaces for the youth by civil society organisations as well as the government. Legal hurdles however, continue to exist in a country where over 60 per cent of the population is under 30 years of age. Often, lack of political awareness and interest is cited as a reason for low political participation of the youth. However, in most countries where legislative hurdles have been removed and electoral systems reformed to receive young voices seriously and legitimately, the participation of young politicians has been higher and more welcome, even if it is still underway and marginal.
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- Supriya Kumar for Center for Youth Policy