OP-ED

Age over youth: Grandfather effect shapes politics. Uganda!

By Lukanga Samuel

As millennial and post-millennial voters become the largest group of voters around the world, the ‘grandfather effect’ has seen politicians of advanced ages retain or win office.

This follows a new study of 1000 young voters which has busted the myth that younger voters prefer young political leaders – which is evident with only a handful of world leaders being aged under 39 years.

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The political science study found that age (up to 70 and older) and experience won the youth vote, provided the older candidates have left-of-centre policies that support younger voters’ positions on social and identity issues.

Although older candidates with left-wing policies are preferred, this is often but not always necessarily the case with younger candidates.

As a social scientist and a leader by practice, I set out to explore why younger voters are drawn to older male candidates in more than one advanced Western democracy – raising questions about whether there is something ‘different’ about the voting habits of millennials and post-millennials.

While large numbers of young voters support young leaders running for office, such as Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand in 2020 – they can also show strong support for relatively older candidates such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – and even candidates aged 80+ such as Uganda’s Museveni and Germany’s Greens MP Hans-Christian Ströbele.

Millennials and post-millennials do not seem to display any kind of intergenerational bias against older candidates.

In other words, the young voters today appear to be happy to support older candidates, provided their policy stances are in line with what the young voters feel is important to them.

Y voters born between about 1981 and 1996 are now aged in their 20s and 30s –and post-millennials (Gen Z) born between 1997 and 2012 are coming into voting power. They follow Gen X (1965-1980) and Boomer generations, many of whom are retirees or heading into retirement.

Contrary to the descriptive representation literature, young voters are “significantly more likely to support older candidates if they are aware that these candidates champion general left-wing policies.

All things being equal, younger voters do not prefer younger candidates to older candidates.

Even though young voters are often described as disengaged and disinterested in conventional political participation, they are known to be able to mobilise in remarkable, non-conventional ways.

As Mugabe described the latter group in 1989: “There exists among the membership of ZANU a minority, but the very powerful bourgeois group which champions the cause of international finance and national private capital, whose interests thus stand opposed to the development and growth of a socialist and egalitarian society in Zimbabwe.” So is currently happening in Uganda.

Politically, the state and the ruling NRM party became indistinguishable, as a lower-middle class was built quickly through the bureaucracy, and corruption and patronage systems emerged parallel to the growth of a comprador faction.

The socialist agenda in Uganda has been adjourned indefinitely. We don’t talk about socialism in a party that is led by people who own large tracts of land and employ a lot of cheap labor.
When the freedom fighters were fighting in Luwero bushes, they were fighting not to disturb the system but to dismantle it. And what are we seeing now? Leaders are busy implementing the very same agendas which our plucky present-day veterans were fighting against.

With a very valorous young population, the NRM government has, unlike in the past, slightly failed to utilize this enthusiastic youthful force. Our young people’s influence on national politics remains limited. There is a general sense that traditional politics and representative democracy—whereby voters determine the outcome of power struggles at the ballot box—fail to attract the attention of younger cohorts who feel alienated from political processes.

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