Engaging Youth in Latin America: IFES’ Work in Guatemala

by Fernanda Buril*

Voter turnout can be a meaningful indicator of a country’s democratization progress. This is especially true for Latin America, as the simple act of casting ballots can say a lot about citizens’ level of trust in their relatively new institutions, electoral processes, and the very principles of democracy. The participation of youth in these processes is a particularly important factor affecting the strength of democracies for a series of reasons. For instance, young voters can sway elections and pressure politicians to enact legislation that benefits their generation. Voting from a young age also has the potential to increase civic engagement, as youth who vote tend to continue voting throughout their adult lives.

Having acknowledged the crucial role of youth participation in democracy, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has contributed to efforts to increase political awareness and engagement among young Latin Americans. Our recent work in Guatemala is proof of this commitment.

Guatemalan youth ages 18-35 represent more than 40 percent of the country’s eligible voters. IFES has been working closely with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to engage this important group in the decision-making and future of their country. More recently, as part of the United States Agency for International Development-funded Electoral Governance and Reforms Project, IFES supported the TSE in the production of materials for its voter education campaign prior to the April 15 referendum on the country’s territorial dispute with Belize. With videos portraying youth and conveying clear messages targeting young audiences, IFES helped the TSE spread important information on various social and traditional media outlets encouraging young citizens to take part in the process.

¡Tú defines tu futuro!

Combining Facebook, Instagram and Twitter users, the campaign material reached over 2 million individuals. Users interacted with the video more than 450,000 times on Instagram alone. With a voter turnout of 26.33 percent, the 2018 referendum surpassed the participation rate of previous referendums in the country and exceeded the expectations of the TSE, according to its chair at the time, María Eugenia Mijangos.

In its over 30 years of history, IFES has thrived to promote inclusive, pluralistic societies with well-informed citizens who are able to engage civically. We believe that addressing the underrepresentation of youth in political and electoral processes is essential for the health of democracies, as early civic education and engagement of young people lead to life-long patterns of participation in community and public affairs. IFES will continue to work with its partners in Guatemala and around the world to increase the inclusion of youth, strengthening democratic institutions and building a better future for all citizens.

*Fernanda Buril is a program coordinator for IFES' Americas division.