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Training the Next Generation

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There is a great unease among young people in Europe today. You can measure the dissatisfaction in a variety of ways. The protests that swept the continent over the last couple years -- the indignados in Spain, the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, some scattered Occupy demonstrations -- brought young people into the streets to voice their anger over their declining economic prospects. A new Gallup poll shows that an overwhelming number of young people around the continent believe that their lives will be worse off than their parents.

The impact on politics has been considerable. Fewer young people are voting in European parliament elections. Only 29 percent of eligible young people voted in 2009, down from 33 percent in 2005. At the same time, support has surged among young people for extremist politics on the Right, with Golden Dawn organizing in the public schools in Greece and Jobbik attracting considerable youth support in Hungary. A recent report on "subterranean politics" in Europe argues that young people are upset at their economic prospects but are really focusing their dissatisfaction at political elites, a case born out by the current protests in Istanbul against the authoritarian tendencies of the Erdogan government.

Thibault Muzergues works with the International Republican Institute (IRI) out of their regional office in Bratislava. He has worked in French politics and is now involved in a range of trainings that IRI conducts throughout the region. Many of the trainings organized out of the Bratislava office focus on young people.

"In many countries, to a greater or lesser extent, the youth is still disenfranchised from political responsibilities," he told me in an interview in the IRI office in Bratislava back in February. "We train youth who are politically conscious, politically active, but the problem in most of Europe is that youth in general is much more cynical than it used to be. There is less political participation in general, and much more cynicism about politics in general than there used to be, or compared to my contemporaries back in the 1980s and 1990s."

The generation gap is not easy to bridge. "Frankly, Europe is getting old," he continued. "Because Europe is getting old, the youth matter a lot less now than they used to. It becomes a vicious circle. Politicians consider youth to be less important, and therefore youth gets more cynical and don't vote, which makes them even less important. It's very difficult to break that cycle."

But IRI has had some success in helping young people rise through the ranks of political parties in the region. "We try to form young leaders who can show to other youth that they can make a difference if they get involved in politics," Thibault Muzergues concluded. "Again, it's very difficult because the youth generally doesn't have access to a lot of responsibilities: they are not getting enough seats in parliament or not getting enough influence. So, the best way is to educate them and make sure that they are able to show to their leadership that they know things, and that they can be useful. Sometimes when we have the possibility to advise more senior members of the party, we try to remind them that they were young at some point and that they need to give opportunities to promising youth."

We talked about the different fundraising styles between the United States and Europe, the changing political dynamics in Slovakia, and how the world of political consultants has changed over the last couple decades.

The Interview

Tell me about the kind of trainings you do with parties. What is the goal? What is the expectation? When you move a party from A to B, what does A look like and what does B look like?

We work with parties individually, and we provide them with what we call consultations, which are ad-hoc trainings on tailor-made topics that we discuss with them prior to that. That's what we've been doing, for example, in Bulgaria with several parties that include, GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, and it looks like we're going to do some trainings for the Bulgaria for Citizens Movement, Meglena Kuneva's new party. These are more tailor-made programs to help the parties themselves evolve in an environment that is ever-changing. Democracy changes all the time. Think about how campaigns have been led in the United States, how they were led 20 years ago, how they were led 10 years ago when George W. Bush was elected twice, and then how they are led now with another revolution being accomplished in the two elections of Barack Obama. Obviously, there are changes in people's expectations, changes of techniques, and changes in how to keep in touch with people. At the end of the day, campaigns are about making the link between the politicians--who sometimes after four or fives years in office have lost touch with the electorate - and the expectations of the people. That's mostly what we're trying to do with these parties.

When we're talking about youth, it's more about political education, how a party functions, how to create that global link. From what I remember from my apprenticeship in politics, getting to know people's expectations, and the different categories of people's expectations, is never an easy or a natural thing. People need to learn about it, so that's what we try to do. We focus our trainings on understanding polls and creating a message that not only fits to the ideology or to the thinking of the leader, but that has a link between the expectations of the population and where good people want the country to go. We talk about communication, about how to deliver a message, and then how to campaign and how to listen to people during a political campaign in order to not only win the elections but to take the lessons from the campaign into government as well.

Without revealing any party confidences, can you give an example with a specific case of working with a party in this part of the world?

Let me give the example of GERB, with whom we've just finished a series of three trainings that I started. I myself did a training in Varna for GERB's youth wing in September. We then had a training specifically on the Internet for GERB, because Bulgarian politicians aren't generally on the Internet enough. The Internet can prove a dangerous tool, because it unleashes all the emotions and sometimes the extreme thoughts of some people and some minorities. But it is a great tool to communicate; it is a great tool to get feedback from ordinary people. So we had this training on the Internet with a specialist from France, with whom I actually campaigned in the 2007 presidential election. A few days ago we had another training on how to do a national campaign on the local level, which is obviously all about that link between the people on the local level who live the policy changes of the government day-by-day and the politicians themselves who always have a tendency to put themselves in their ivory tower and just discuss things between themselves.

Obviously each party has different needs. The societies have different expectations. For the moment, if you ask a Bulgarian about his expectations, he'll probably say that corruption and the whole scandal surrounding the government are the main issues of the day. Maybe tomorrow it's going to change, because the news cycle is so quick these days. So obviously we try to tailor our specific trainings.

In the Bulgarian context, one of the features of politics over the last 20 years is a rather swift rotation of parties. I don't think any party has gotten a second chance, consecutively. That might change with the upcoming elections, but does that factor into the training at all?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.