Allow 18 year olds to stand for President says Political analyst

Filed under: Statements |

sishuwaA political analyst has proposed that the age limit to contest elections for Members of Parliament and President be lowered to eighteen years.

Sishuwa Sishuwa says the current age requirement for one to stand for MP and for President is prohibitive, undemocratic and exclusionary.

Mr Sishuwa said the Constitution should set one age for the maturity which comes with full citizenship adding that once a citizen has become an adult at the age of 18, all the political freedoms, rights and opportunities should, by that qualification of adulthood, be open to them.

He said the task of determining the age of the President should be the responsibility of the electorate.

Mr Sishuwa who is currently reading for a doctorate in Modern History at the University of Oxford said this in his submissions to the Legal and Justice Reform Commission.
Here is Mr Sishuwa’s full submission:

I submit that the age qualification for Republican presidential hopefuls and for aspiring Members of Parliament (MPs) be lowered to eighteen years. There is need for consistency between who can vote, who can run for parliament, and who can stand for President.

Zambia, like many other countries, practices ageism — not just in politics, but in all other spheres. It is my hope that this proposal, if adopted, will go some way in eroding this widespread bias, particularly when it comes to seeking elective public office.
Article 35, 3 (c) of the current Constitution states that “A person shall be qualified to be a candidate for election as President if he has attained the age of thirty-five years”.

Article 64 (c) stipulates that “A person shall be qualified to be elected as a member of the National Assembly if he has attained the age of twenty-one years”.

These legal provisions are undemocratic, exclusionary (they defeat a commitment to having Zambians of all age groups contest for public office) and institutionalise the unproven assumption that a citizen only attains the maturity to be an MP at the age of 21 and a presidential candidate at the age of 35; that those who are less than these arbitrarily prescribed ages are not only immature but also lack the capacity to discharge the functions of these offices.

The legal age to be a voter in the current Constitution — Article 75 (1) — is 18 years. If we agree that a person is mature enough to make a decision on who to vote for at the age of 18, what is the basis for depriving such a one from offering themselves up for election as MP or President, and voting for themselves? If we can entrust a person aged 21 to formulate laws, including those that govern the office of the President, why should we disqualify such a person from standing for the position of President? The framers of the 1991 Constitution have told me that the presidential age requirement was introduced not on any scientific or philosophical underpinnings but because that was what was in the Constitution of the United States. But a replicated constitutional limitation is a very unfortunate basis for excluding individuals from seeking public office.

Is it not a contradiction that while a Republican Vice-President can be nominated from amongst MPs, who only need to be 21, a presidential candidate must be older? This question assumes significance when we consider that according to Articles 38 (2) and 39 (1) of the present Constitution, the Vice-President can also act as President whenever the office of President becomes vacant and whenever the President is absent from Zambia or considers it desirable so to do by reason of illness or for any other cause.

If the Constitution insists that a 21 year old Vice-President is mature enough to act as President for up to three months (during which they can exercise the functions of the office of President apart from dissolving the National Assembly and, except on the advice of the Cabinet, revoking any appointment made by the substantive President), why should the same Constitution deprive such a 21-year-old Vice-President of the right to vie for the position of President in their own right?

It appears to me that the Constitution has three ages — 18 for voting, 21 for qualification for election to the National Assembly and 35 for qualification for election as Republican President.

On grounds of internal consistency, I submit that the Constitution should set one age for the maturity which comes with full citizenship, not three different definitions of adulthood attached to different levels of citizenship. In other words, once a citizen has become an adult at the age of 18, all the political freedoms, rights and opportunities should, by that qualification of adulthood, be open to them.

The task of determining the age of the President should be the responsibility of the electorate.

If, for instance, an 18-year-old candidate emerges victorious from a competitive multiparty presidential election, which also had older candidates on the ballot, shouldn’t we respect that choice as a reflection of the democratic will of the majority?

Democracy that is representative of the views and aspirations of the electorate will quite naturally weed out the weaklings, including those who are deemed too old or too young. Granted, many young people may not have the experience to run successfully for public office, but those who believe they can ably serve before they reach 21 or 35 years should have the chance to seek to do so.

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian political commentator, currently reading for a doctorate in Modern History at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.