Taking Wing - Pathways to Participation and Leadership Offered by Political Party Youth Wings (Summary Document, Preliminary Research Findings)
Youth the world over want to be involved in decisions affecting their future and are increasingly turning to new ways of political organizing that fall outside the bounds of formal institutions and processes, because these are viewed with distrust. The majority find political parties, for instance, opaque and disinterested in youth perspectives. Yet turning away from parties completely has a cost, since political parties still play central roles when it comes to formally competing for power and earning the right to govern. To better balance formal and informal youth participation, support should be provided that helps young people find meaningful ways to enter party politics, so they can also work to influence change from inside the system.
Within political parties, youth wings can offer young people a pathway to participation and leadership under select circumstances, where the parent party provides an enabling environment and young people can actively exert influence. Too often, however, youth wings serve more as a tool of the parent party, further marginalizing youth voices. Under these circumstance, the youth that remain involved can become socialized to a structure of top-down decision making and young people waiting their turn.
The number of young people that join political parties and enter youth wings is relatively low, with some surveys showing less than 10 percent of this demographic being involved. The numbers can be even smaller from marginalized groups, like the Roma. However, this small number does represent an important segment of youth with political aspirations. Many of these young people view politics as a potential vocation and youth wings can offer this select group a formative political experience.
When designing assistance programs to promote youth participation and leadership through party youth wings, it’s necessary to understand the structural dynamics that exist between a parent party and the youth wing. In cases where a reform-minded party is open and receptive to youth wing participation, then a program can focus on helping young people step into different roles, including running for office. On the other hand, parties that are relatively closed and controlled by an elite establishment requires programs that encourage internal reforms, so that youth wing members can play more meaningful roles. NDI has assessments tools available to help organize this analysis.
Even in cases where there has been concerted development support offered to youth wings and the buy in of party leaders, short-term political imperatives can keep youth wing members standing on the sidelines. In this way, political calculations, made in order to gain and maintain power, have implications for how parties approach the participation of young people. For instance, if polling showed that the electorate of a country is more likely to vote for someone over 40-years old rather than under 30-years old, then party leaders can be easily dissuaded from running young candidates.
Multi-partisan approaches that bring youth wing activists from different parties together, can help reduce political polarization and help promote more constructive forms of political discourse. In countries with a history of violent conflict (e.g., Bosnia and Hercegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya), NDI has brought the youth wings of different parties together to find common ground and work collectively on policy issues. This has led to relationships that seem to discourage incivility.