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Voting at 16 years

Within the Labour Party we are actively working on our proposals concerning local council reform. Labour-led councils and our councillors elsewhere are taking an active role within their local fora and coming up with their own suggestions at that level. As a party, we will then be issuing our proposals mainly from a national perspective.

One idea I am spearheading is that local government is ideal to tap into the potential of young people. Young people are the lifeline of social activity in most of our localities. They come up with ideas, take initiatives and have the energy to get things done. Unfortunately, they are often sidelined to secondary roles by decision-makers.

This is why I believe it is high time that we further empower young people. A Labour government had reduced voting age from 21 to 18. At the time, there were those who thought this was risky, citing "maturity" as a reason for depriving 18, 19 and 20 year olds of the right to vote. Time proved that this was the right decision. We should now make another step forward for democracy and further decrease voting age from 18 to 16 years. The ideal testing ground for such a progressive policy would be the local council elections.

Austria has spearheaded this policy in Europe while in Germany five out of 16 states have decreased the voting age in municipal elections to 16 years. The experiment there was led by the Social Democrats in Lower Saxony and eventually caught on. One Swiss canton has adopted the same policy. Elsewhere, Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and the Philippines allow younger citizens to vote in local government elections. There were other cities and states which moved in this direction.

But would this be change for change's sake?

No. It would be change with a clear aim of strengthening our democracy. More young people would take an interest and become involved in decision-making and this would help change the somewhat lethargic policy-making in our country. Politicians would have to face up to new challenges and become more accountable when faced with a new media-savvy, demanding and enterprising electorate.

Like in other countries having this debate, again there might be those who argue that younger people might not be "sufficiently mature". This is a very subjective discussion. The run-of-the mill counter-argument would be that of questioning whether some people of a more venerable age are "sufficiently mature".

Most of those opposing this idea base their argument on pre-conceptions rather than evidence. I say that participation in the democratic process is an essential part of the education process to become a citizen.

One important argument is that such a policy might lead to further politicisation of our country. I beg to differ. I think that the rejuvenation of our electorate and the direct participation of more young people will lead to less partisan and more sensible politics. Young people have fewer preconceptions and want a more objective debate.

Furthermore, if our system provides that at 16 years of age a person is mature enough to leave school and enter the working world - a momentous change in one's life - why shouldn't she or he be allowed to vote?

Some might cite the discussion which took place in the United Kingdom some years ago and which ended up with everything remaining the same. Nevertheless, there was a general feeling that further discussion was inevitable and that the decision was merely being postponed.

That is why I will push the idea that local council elections are the ideal testing grounds to push down voting age from 18 to 16 years and even to consider doing so with the age of candidates.

I am aware that there are people within other political parties who are in favour of such a proposal and I hope we can start going beyond simply paying lip service to young people.

I trust them.

Dr Muscat is leader of the Malta Labour Party and a member of the European Parliament.

www.josephmuscat.com

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