A young boy accompanies his father to the polling station, Erbil, 2009. A young boy accompanies his father to the polling station, Erbil, 2009. Photo: Jamal Penjweny / UNDP

By Jacky Sutton, UN Integrated Electoral Assistance Team 

Every year in Iraq about 800,000 young people become eligible to vote. The challenge for the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) is to educate these first-time voters about elections, motivate them to check their registration data so that they can exercise their right to the franchise and, perhaps most importantly, engage with and listen to them to establish a collaborative relationship that can endure beyond the immediate electoral period. 



IHEC currently does not have continuous voter registration update, and registration is not compulsory either, although these two issues are being discussed with UN electoral advisors. The Commission must therefore develop youth-centric strategies to persuade young people that elections matter and that their vote will contribute to change.


“Democracy in Iraq will only be sustainable if the youth feel represented and they feel their voice is heard. This is why we place so much importance on outreach to first-time voters,” said the UN’s Chief Electoral Advisor, Mr. Jose Maria Aranaz.


The 2013 Governorate Council Elections (GCE) were the first election in three years and the voter list included an estimated 2.2 million first-time voters (those who turned 18 in 2011, 2012 and 2013), which brought the total to 16 million voters. However only 300,000 people updated their information and 7,000 added their names for the GCE. IHEC does not disaggregate voter data by age group, so it is difficult to know how many of these were first-time voters. 


The global participation of young people in formal, institutionalized political processes is low compared to older citizens.  International IDEA has analyzed statistics from more than 1,400 parliamentary and presidential elections across the world between 1945 and 1997. Their research indicates that voter turnout rose steadily between 1945 and 1990 but is now falling, and this is attributed to a decline in youth voting. 


This does not mean that young people are not political; but they are more inclined to engage in more informal, activist movements or get involved in civic activities such as volunteering. 


Iraqi young people are no different. In 2010, demonstrations across Iraq in solidarity with regional revolutions brought thousands of young people onto the streets of major cities including Baghdad, Erbil, Basra and Sulaymaniyah.  The resulting security clampdown drove many to organize online, using Facebook as a secure platform because of the difficulties for Iraqis inside the country to register a website. 


Since 2010 the situation for young people has worsened. Unemployment is rising as international funding for NGO activities declines, private sector growth is sluggish and government jobs are reserved for political elites. The education system does not incubate critical thinking or entrepreneurial skills and banks are unwilling to invest in start-ups. 


Moreover young people have become targets of violence by both government forces and terrorists. In early 2012 teens criticized as “emos” by the Ministry of Interior were brutally murdered. 


In April 2013, a café frequented by young people in Baghdad was bombed, killing 30, while 15 were killed in an attack on a football match two months later. No one has been charged with these crimes, and youth issues are not priorities on the agenda of a middle-aged political class. Although the voting age, at 18, is lower than the regional average, the minimum age for political office is 30 and there are no statutory requirements for youth membership of political entities.


The limited formal political opportunities for young people have contributed to the rise of social media in Iraq, and there are an estimated 2.6 million users, a number that grew by 800,000 in the last six months. Over 41 percent of Facebook users are 18-24 year olds, placing them squarely in the critical youth demographic for elections, and there are dozens of pages relating to political and social campaigns. On the advice of the UN, the IHEC has set up a Facebook page and YouTube, Flickr and Twitter accounts and is developing the protocols for a more structured consultative relationship with young people in terms of content both for its online outreach and its more traditional forms of engagement.


However, true engagement of youth in the political process will remain tenuous at best unless other institutions also contribute to an enabling environment that empowers them to participate fully in civil and political life and not just be considered as objects of mobilization campaigns in the run-up to an election. 


This means that the UN and Iraqi government should work together to ensure an appropriate legal framework that facilitates youth representation in parliament and local government; support to youth as community and political party leaders; incentives for youth to participate in elections as observers, candidates and election officials, and not just as voters; and respect for the autonomous political agency of young people as an investment in a democratic future.



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  • Agency: UNAMI

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