Youth Game-Changers in Elections

Kevan Harris
      This is the eighth in a series on parliamentary elections due in March 2012:
  • What role does Iran’s youth play in elections?
After the 1979 revolution, the voting age was lowered to 15 which automatically made youth important in elections. But since the mid-1990s, Iranian youth have been particularly pivotal to both the campaigns and turnout in major elections. Student organizations were critical to the birth of the reform movement, symbolized by the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami as president.  They operated as de facto campaign staffs in towns outside of Tehran, where Khatami was basically unknown.  
The 1999 student protests in Tehran and elsewhere were sparked by the closure of a popular reformist newspaper. But they reflected widespread frustration, especially among new students in the expanded public and private university system, at the slow pace of political reform. The demonstrations were quelled but student activism laid the seeds for a national opposition movement a decade later.
In 2005, some student organizations called for a boycott of the presidential election, which was won by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a second round of voting.  In 2009, however, young Iranians were widely visible in the campaigns of reform candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi — and in six months of street protests after the government announced Ahmadinejad had been reelected.
Iran does not have a system of political parties, so endorsements by student organizations with a nationwide network can be immensely important to any candidate.  
  • What role is Iranian youth or the activist generation likely to play in the 2012 parliamentary elections?
Iran’s young are not homogenous in their views or level of activism. On one end of the spectrum, many youth in the Basij militia supported Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election because they believed he represented their national interests. On the other end, young members of the Green Movement supported Mousavi for the same reasons. There are both engaged and apathetic youth—with the majority both, depending on the month.  During the 2009 post-election protests, it was mostly young people that were beating up and shooting at other young people.
The debate for the 2012 parliamentary elections is largely about participation versus boycott.  A central issue is whether voting in the election in turn bestows legitimacy on the entire political system.  It is the subject of many conversations at dinner tables, coffee houses, and hookah bars all over Iran.  People generally make up their minds about whether or not to vote right before the elections.
  • What is the origin of the youth factor in Iran's politics?
The numerical importance of young Iranians dates from the early years of the revolution.  During the monarchy’s final decade in the 1970s, Iran’s birth rate decreased moderately.  But under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic regarded population control as a sort of Western conspiracy and encouraged large families in the early 1980s.  The new government also viewed an expanding population as good for defense of the nation and the revolution, especially during the eight-year war with Iraq.
By 1980, the average number of children per family had risen to seven children.  In 1986, the ratio of Iranians aged 0-4 to the rest of the population was the highest it had been in 30 years.
The growing numbers, particularly data in the 1986 Iranian census conducted while Mousavi was prime minister, began to alarm the political elite. The war- ravaged economy could not easily cover the costs of feeding, educating, housing and eventually employing the new baby boomers.  With the voting age at 15, the young also loomed as a disproportionately decisive political factor in the post-war era.
After a vigorous public debate, the regime introduced an innovative family planning program in the late 1980s that included religious fatwas encouraging contraception and a lower family size.  Family planning services, which covered prenatal health and marriage counseling, quickly expanded in Iran through the construction of village clinics and urban community centers. Growing literacy among females also contributed to raising the average age of marriage which also limited family sizes.
Iran's average birth rate witnessed an astounding decline down to two children by 2000.  As a result, the demographic bulge from the 1980s has not been repeated. In 2007, the regime raised the voting age to 18. Yet that baby boom generation—now between its mid-twenties and early thirties in age— is in its prime in terms of education and jobs. (Many young Iranians enter university later than their Western counterparts.) 
  • How have political and economic issues evolved for Iran’s baby boom generation in ways that could impact elections?
Iran’s economy has not been able to absorb the baby boom generation, which is more educated and skilled than any previous Iranian generation.  The Ahmadinejad government frequently discusses the issue of youth unemployment, but the large numbers of new jobs it promised have failed to materialize. And an already bloated public sector cannot hire all of the jobless youth either.  
Iran's baby boom generation is well connected to global culture and technology. They are in turn transforming Iranian society. Religious music stores in Tehran offer hundreds of low-budget CDs and DVDs featuring famous devout young male singers.  Several New Age styled self-help books have been translated from English into Persian.  These are popular among young and educated individuals who reject heavy public displays of religiosity but want to retain spiritual ideas as part of their identity.  The newly opened concert hall attached to Tehran's Milad Tower recently had its first heavy metal show, which sold out.  
As this generation ages, Iran faces problems down the road of social security and health care.  Iran’s major health issues are no longer tuberculosis or cholera but diseases of the elderly - high blood pressure, depression, diabetes and obesity.  Although Iranians are living longer, the country's public health care system is not set up to handle these kinds of diseases, which are costlier to treat and require a more efficient and universal social safety net.  These concerns are not far beneath the surface of Iranian politics already—and are likely to become more important with each future election.
Kevan Harris, who visited Iran in June, is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University and a 2011-12 USIP Jennings Randolph Peace Fellow.  He writes a weblog called “The Thirsty Fish." 
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