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From TikTok to the Ballot Box: Can lowering the voting age improve European democracy?

With the European elections approaching, Belgium joins the growing trend of lowering the voting age, fuelling debates on how to engage a politically frustrated young generation that is more open to vote for the extreme right. This article delves into the influential role of the far-right on TikTok and discusses the benefits of compulsory voting for young first-time voters.

Elsa Kraemer & Valentin Zanon

With the European elections around the corner, parties across the European Union (EU) are once again competing for voters’ approval and, more importantly, for people to actually show up to the ballot box. Increasing the number of eligible voters seems to be one strategy to tackle the latter challenge. Lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years for EU elections, Belgium joins the group of countries with early youth-voting rights alongside Austria, Germany, Malta (from 16 years old), and Greece (from 17 years old). Annelies Verlienden, Belgian Minister of Interior, stated in an interview with Belgian media that “the youth will go vote massively, and it is a good thing for democracy”.

In general, continuously expanding voting rights seems inherently part of democratic development. After all, every wave of democratisation in the last 150 years marked an emancipatory milestone for discriminated groups of society, such as workers, women, people of colour, and other social groups. But what does this newest development mean for the political landscape in the EU, and why might an influx in young voters be good news for the far-right?

The myth of the young left

The youth tend to vote left. At least, that seemed to be the main underlying counterargument of right-wing parties to keep the voting age up. Younger generations are often ascribed to being post-materialist, environmentally cautious, and apt on minority rights. However, new polling shows that ascribing young people automatically to the left side of the political spectrum is debatable.

As typical for seemingly oversimplified truths, they often reflect reality only to a limited extent. A closer look at the most recent national elections in the Netherlands, France, and Italy nuances that picture of the ‘woke youth’: If only younger generations had been able to vote, far-right parties led by Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, and Georgia Meloni would have, surprisingly for some, increased their voter share rather than shrunk.

Possible explanations range from frustration with traditional parties to lacking interest in politics to feeling alienated from the political system in general. Yet, is the young generation truly apolitical, hedonistic, and hyper-individualistic as boomers and even millennials like to portray them?  To find an answer to this question, one needs to look at a place that could be considered as ‘the realm of the youth’, also known as TikTok.

Reactionism is only a swipe away

Among lipsyncs, storytimes, GRWMs¹, and dancing tutorials for the newest Taylor Swift song, far-right political communication found its way to the Chinese-led short-video platform. The early-stage usage of TikTok by highly professionalised far-right populist parties is a key element of their strategy to reach younger voter segments. After all, social media allows political parties to dodge the gatekeepers of traditional news media and get their messages unfiltered to their target audience. Far-right parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in Austria understood the assignment: Working hard to build a fresh, approachable image among young people.

And according to the numbers, they are succeeding. Far-right parties and parliamentary members that are part of the EU parliamentary group Identity and Democracy (ID) are the most followed on European TikTok, generating the highest number of likes compared to other political accounts. Studies show that they not only engage in conventional negative campaigning, including scapegoating and anti-establishment populism, but also use “positive and optimistic appeals, including inspirational cues that foster hope” in their messaging.

The success of far-right populists on TikTok is only one explanation of this shift in young people’s party preferences. Nonetheless, it underlines two essential points: First, without robust civic education coming from state institutions, first-time voters become easy targets for populist political messaging on social media. Lowering the voting age is a step toward making young people’s needs and demands more visible. However, this only improves our democracy if their choices are based on reliable information, not click-baiting content on social media. After all, Member States effectively lowering the voting age for European elections does not automatically imply providing quality political education to the youth. Many NGOs have deplored the lack of political support and education of first-time voters in those countries specifically. Second, young people do not seem to favour the far-right due to their substantial appeal but rather because many are frustrated and disillusioned with the political status quo. To put it bluntly, many young voters simply see no better option than to vote for far-right populists.

Lost in lockdown

What is certain is that the youth was neglected during the Covid-19 pandemic and historically during some of the last economic recessions. In particular, young people have expressed feeling unseen in the political responses they are receiving from their respective governments: the global measures taken during the Covid-19 pandemic included severe versions of a lockdown, which locked young people up at home, leaving them socially excluded and isolated, as well as prone to sky-rocketing social media consumption. 

On a different note, it feels like this year’s European election campaigns are struggling to get past the EU bubble and all the more to reach young voters. This is yet another example of young people often being forgotten and their needs not being listed at the top of the political agenda. For some young people, this could translate to frustration in active participation in democratic processes. After all, effectively lowering the voting age for European elections does not automatically imply providing quality political education to the youth. Many NGOs have deplored the lack of political support and education of first-time voters in those countries specifically.

Alternative forms of political participation

Another factor that can amplify voting absence amongst the youngest voters is the fact that they use alternative methods to express their political opinions, unlike the other age categories. Amongst these alternative ways of political engagement are boycotting (particularly for factors that relate to climate change, war or ethics), buycotting², voting blank, demonstrating, and cancelling³. Social media has enhanced people's awareness and consciousness over certain worldwide issues, and as heavy social media users, younger citizens naturally became aware of politicised issues shared on these platforms.

Compulsory voting?

Additionally, the occasional shift from voluntary to compulsory voting at 18 years old is regrettable. In Belgium, voting is compulsory by law, but minors are exempted from legal repercussions in case they do not honour that obligation. This might discourage some from going to the voting polls. On that matter, it is shown that not using their vote from a young age can set a precedent for young people’s future voting habits. This tendency is particularly likely to happen in countries where voting is not compulsory. On the bright side, the pervasive snowball effect might be mitigated since the vote will later become compulsory in the same country (with effective legal sanctions). This is shown by the impressively high vote turnout in Belgium – which is and has always been the highest in the European Union. To continue on an encouraging note, both the Scottish referendum in 2014 and the Norwegian trial in 2011 show that the turnout among 16- and 17-year-old voters was, in fact, higher than the voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds. In line with this, some minors in Belgium have stated that being able to vote earlier on gave them a sense of self-confidence, a sense that their voice matters, and that contributing to political decisions is important.

In a nutshell, the frustration of young people with the current system does not inherently translate to a preference for autocratic rule. Despite their discontent, youth often hold democracy and its principles in high regard. This highlights a nuanced understanding among the youth that their dissatisfaction does not lie with the concept of democracy itself but rather with the perceived shortcomings or failures within the existing democratic frameworks. In essence, the frustration stems from a desire for a more inclusive, responsive, and effective democratic system. It reflects a yearning for a better-functioning system or one that sees the youth’s priority put higher up on the political agenda. Therefore, as some EU Member States have granted additional voting rights to youth, it signifies a recognition of their desire to engage more actively in shaping their societies. 

Extending voting rights to younger demographics can be seen as a positive step towards fostering greater civic engagement and strengthening democratic participation. It also acknowledges the unique perspectives, concerns, and aspirations of the youth, ensuring that their voices are heard and their interests are represented in the political process. However, it is crucial that such initiatives be accompanied by substantial efforts to address the root causes of frustration and disillusionment with the current system (present for a considerable while and amplified during Covid-19), while navigating through social media and the online polarisation created by far-right parties in Europe. Expanding voting rights alone without addressing underlying systemic issues will not satisfy the needs and aspirations of the youth and will hinder their capacity to effectively participate in democracy.

1 “Get Ready With Me”

2 A form of protest voiced in deliberately choosing not to buy from a company or business due to its ethical standard. (Oxford English Dictionary) 3 An action or practice of publicly boycotting, ostracising, or withdrawing support from a person, institution, etc., thought to be promoting culturally unacceptable ideas. (Oxford English Dictionary)



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