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Giving a damn

#YouthVote: Democracy in our backyard

By Nikkola Mikocki-Bleeker and Isabel Stewart
Outgoing and Incoming International Engagement Communications Coordinator

When Donald Trump was elected US President in January, left-wing social media exploded into anger, fear and sadness. For disadvantaged minorities, Trump’s victory was life-threatening. The ecological futures of young people were endangered, and racialised vitriol was suddenly legitimised against people of colour, those with migrant backgrounds, and Muslims. Those who express gender and sexuality outside the norm and many others faced the prospect of an increasingly unwelcoming home.

“As young people who care about democracy and human rights, isn’t it our responsibility to give a damn about what’s going on in our backyard?”

It was unsurprising, then, to see Australian allies erupt into a clamour of protest. But even my own lobbying made me wonder about US cultural and political supremacy. I saw how little I and those like me - considering ourselves informed and compassionate - knew about democracy closer to home. 


The Asia-Pacific region is the area where Oaktree focuses its work: funding education programs and partnering with like-minded youth organisations. 2017 has also seen, or will see, three countries in which Oaktree has partners (Timor-Leste, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea) undergo political elections. Outcomes of these elections will have their own far-reaching effects in these societies and across the region.

As young people who care about democracy and human rights, isn’t it our responsibility to give a damn about what’s going on in our own backyard? I asked Oaktree’s expert country teams*** what - at the very least -should we know and care about?


Who won in March 2017?

In Timorese presidential elections in March of this year, Francisco “Lu-Olo” Gutteres of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) party, won with 57.1% of the vote. Lu-Olo has strong backing from key Timorese resistance heroes (a complex issue in the relatively new nation).

Why is this significant?

Lu-Olo is one of the older members of the independence resistance movement from 1975-1999, and has the backing of Xanana Gusmao (a significant resistance hero, considered the father of modern Timor-Leste). As Oaktree has touched on before, members of the resistance fight remain popular in politics, leaving little space for younger leaders. This is a problem as nearly 50% of the population is under 18.

What should we be concerned about?

Politically disengaged voters relying on an old guard of revolutionary heroes could mean that elitism will predominate in Timorese politics. Maintaining this status quo could mean younger leaders will not be represented in power. Further, persistent economic uncertainty, unemployment and issues with secondary education must be addressed. Significantly, these are issues that will affect the Timorese youth bulge most of all.

What about the parliamentary elections next month?

The results of the presidential elections do not show much promise for a generational change of political power from the older generation of leaders to the younger generation. For this reason, the upcoming parliamentary elections will be key. Time will tell whether youth and issues affecting them will be represented. 



Who will win the elections in June 2017?

For the past 32 years, the Cambodian Communist Party (CCP) have ruled Cambodia. In June this year, the Party, as led by controversial leader Hun Sen, looks set to win the commune elections with about 71% of the vote.

What is significant about this probable result?

Though Cambodia’s democracy has long been beleaguered, the recent election showed promise for its future with an 85% turnout for voting. Cambodia’s current median age is 24, a significant factor in the electoral outcomes as Cambodia’s youth are proving to be more engaged and informed than previous generations.

What are possible dangers?

Hun Sen and the CCP continue to use fear as a method of retaining power in the country. In the past, Hun Sen has threatened civil war if the CCP were to lose elections and has recently been quoted as saying that political opponents should prepare their coffins.

PNG elections

What’s the history of elections in Papua New Guinea?

The 2012 victory of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill seemed to promise a transition from a problematic old guard to newer flagship policies of anti-corruption, free health and education, and infrastructural development.

What should we be concerned about leading up to these elections?

Free schooling (while well-intentioned) has meant greater education access but with issues such as overcrowded classrooms. It has also been just over one year since PNG police shot at university students who were protesting government corruption (ironically with a specific focus on Prime Minister Peter O’Neill). To this day, the students await justice. Compounding these issues, 50% of PNG’s population is under 20. We will look towards the nation’s upcoming elections (beginning on the 24th of June) to see whether this huge youth bulge and its interests will be represented.

There are many reasons we should care about democracy within our region and worldwide. Trump and those like him are scary because of what they represent, but together we can fight worldwide bigotry, fascism and divisive politics. So expect to hear much more from Oaktree and our partners over the next little while as we continue amplifying calls for democracy within our region. Just watch this space, as we wait to see how #YouthVote to change Asia-Pacific’s political future…

*** Thanks are owed to Lachlan McPhee (Pacific Programs Director), Kate Walker (Cambodia Partnership Manager) and Benjamin Sullivan (Southeast Asia Research Officer) for their guidance in writing this blog.

Want to keep reading? Check out Being Bold for Change in Timor. Or, if you're keen to support Oaktree's education partners to empower young people in Timor-Leste and Cambodia, jump over to the donate page!