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Turning around low turnout

To lure their peers to the polls, Geneva youth get creative

By Sonia Fenazzi in Geneva

Many governments and societies around the world want young people to bring fresh ideas to the political process, and to participate (CinéCivic)

Many governments and societies around the world want young people to bring fresh ideas to the political process, and to participate


Most young people in Switzerland stay away from the polls at voting time, but one canton is trying to buck the trend with comics and cinema.

Low turnout among youth voters isn’t particular to Switzerland. But alarm bells went off when an analysis of last February’s nationwide vote on the highly controversial people’s initiative "against mass immigration" showed that just 17% of voters under 30 participated.

Researchers from the GfS Bern institute and the University of Geneva eventually boosted that initial estimate to 30%; it is impossible to pinpoint the rate of participation by age group in federal votes, since no such data are gathered.

CinéCivic 2014

The short film competition, to encourage young people to vote, is open to those between 15 and 25 living in canton Geneva.

This year’s awards ceremony is scheduled for October 13 at RTS, Switzerland’s French-language public radio and TV station, which serves as a partner.

There is a prize for each age group – 15-18 and 19-25 – both worth CHF 2,000, and the “media and cinema” prize, worth CHF 3,000.

Suggestions for improving voter turnout among the younger generation have ranged from lowering the voting age to 16 – as in canton Glarus – to gathering more detailed statistics. But canton Geneva is going in another direction.

Youth absenteeism at the polls has worried Anja Wyden Guelpa since she took office as the head of the canton’s public service four years ago.

“The participation rate for young people is usually 15 to 20 percentage points below the average for the whole electorate in the canton”, she told swissinfo.ch. That increases to 40 points when compared with the 70-74 age group, which has the highest rate.

“We asked ourselves why they don’t vote and came to the conclusion that to speak to young people, you have to use their language, their tools and channels of communication,” Wyden Guelpa adds. “Who can do this better than young people themselves?”

From manga to videoclips

So the government turned to a young Geneva artist to write a manga – a type of Japanese comic book – aimed at raising young people’s awareness of their civic duty. Entitled “The future in our hands” and published in 2012, the comic is now distributed to canton Geneva residents who have just reached the age of 18.

Using the same “for young people, by young people” approach, the CinéCivic videoclip competition was started in the following year. Young fledgling directors were invited to submit short films with specified technical and content criteria to cajole other young people into voting. The work is done “with very simple technical resources, like a smartphone, or a TV camera and a microphone. Which means at low cost,” explains Wyden Guelpa.

Deepened reflection

The young directors use imagination, humour, and aesthetic appeal to get their age group  thinking about the importance of voting. This also gets the film-makers themselves thinking more deeply about the issue, as participants who spoke with swissinfo.ch confirmed.

Valeria Mazzucchi, a 24-year-old student who won the 2013 film prize for her age group, says the competition “stimulates thinking by the participants as well as the audience” about their civic duty. The message of her witty short film was that “voting means deciding”.

The issue “has been a staple of conversation in our group of friends for months now, during the preparation and then while looking at the videos,” says 22-year-old student Mateo Ybarra, who co-directed a short film called “Le bon geste” (“The right move”). It won the “media and cinema” prize in 2013.

“When I made the film, I showed it to others, I tried to get their opinion to find out what I could do improve it. So I had lots of discussions and could explain to some of the abstensionists why I think it’s important to vote”, says 21-year-old Michel Thorimbert, who is competing in the 2014 version of CinéCivic, the prizes for which will be presented on October 13.

“This experience encouraged me to get my friends and people I know to vote – and to do the same when I reach voting age,” says Matthis Pasche, a 16-year-old secondary school pupil also competing this year.

More involvement

The success of the competition’s first edition encouraged Wyden Guelpa and her staff to keep on with the initiative and extend it, bringing young people into the organisation and developing new ways of working together. Based on the experience so far, they have continued and updated the format of the competition.

Institutions 3D

The manga and the CinéCivic short film competition are not the only initiatives from the Geneva government to get young people to vote.

Since 2013, in partnership with other groups, it has developed a pilot project called “Institutions 3D” to explain to youngsters the separation of powers and their functions, through role play and events at political institutions, plus school courses.

And the young filmmakers are already wondering what will happen after the competition.

“I hope the government goes on and distributes the films – for example on buses, local TV networks and other media. Just leaving them up on the site without promoting them will not do much for the goal of consciousness-raising,” says Thorimbert.

“It would be a good idea to find a place for them in film festivals, like Locarno,” Ybarra points out.

The government is paying attention to all these suggestions. Wyden Guelpa says “the idea is to involve the participants as much as possible.” The films that won last year have been shown in cinemas for a month, at the Geneva open-air festival Cinétransat as well as in schools. And negotiations are in progress with a film festival. But with a budget of just CHF25,000 ($26,000) they can’t work miracles.

“Our vision is that CinéCivic, besides being a competition, should become a platform for exchanges throughout the year, with activity on the internet site and social media,” says Wyden Guelpa.

“The goal is to get young people to vote, because only with their participation can our political ideas be renewed”.

Complex reasons for not voting

Abstentionism by young people at election time is a phenomenon worrying a number of Western countries. Studies suggest there are several reasons for it. The most frequently cited are the complexity of the issues at stake, the unattractiveness of politics, and inadequacy of the language and the channels of communication. Various measures have been proposed to promote youth participation in political decision-making: more teaching of civics, incentive policies involving young people at all levels, use of new technologies of communication, and lowering the voting age to 16.

A recent Swiss study called “Scoop.it 2.0”, made public in September, found that two thirds of the 3,400 young people between 14 and 25 interviewed are interested in politics. But the conversation mainly takes place in chatrooms and on social networks.

(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch



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