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Justifying the lowering of the voting age for local elections

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In the following paper we shall discuss the link between age as a personal characteristic and the right to vote as one of, if not the most important fundamental political human right, which is inseparably linked to a democratic, plural state ruled by law.

The ability to influence important decisions in a certain state or municipality is often limited by different criteria. Who will represent the people in a democratic state or at a local level is a result of general elections. A question subjected to a referendum is dependent on voter turnout and the prevailing choices of individuals who have the right to take part in such decision making.

The right to vote is not absolute, but is subject to certain restrictions and limitations and was historically limited by criteria nowadays unimaginable, such as race, gender, social status etc. In the 21st century we have lesser restrictions, but some still remain such as citizenship, residence/domicile and age. They are not problematic if they are set on a basis of legitimate reasons. Age based distinctions »are currently employed to determine when a person can marry, vote, drive, consent to sexual intercourse and sell property«.

Age is therefore used as a tool preventing a certain social group from engaging (more) actively in certain areas of political and legislative spectre of society. Stricter age distinctions or rules usually apply regarding the right to run in elections or be a candidate (passive right to vote) than in being able to vote or cast your vote (active right to vote). Concrete chosen age is usually a result of a societies or legislators presumption at what age an individual is capable of understanding the right to vote in a way that he or she will be able to carry out his right in a proper manner with reasonable decisions which will be founded on available information at hand, to choose between different options that are available, so that he or she will choose the option closest to his personal beliefs, values and interest.

Different generations have different interest and values. Legislature (almost) never uses “old age” as a reason for someone to »loose« his right to vote, while youth is often or always used as a reason to prevent the young(er) generations from participating in elections. Since the right to vote is a fundamental political human right it should be interpreted in a broad manner without unnecessary restrictions and limitations.

Age limit regarding right to vote is a consequence of a false presumption by the legislator that young people are not capable of understanding the meaning and effect of elections. Voting ages have changed through time and are not set in stone. Changing social circumstances demand changes in legislature, and the legislator is the one who must show legitimate and convincing reasons and arguments for keeping the voting age at a certain (high) level. A patronage over younger generations in this case is not justified.

A lowering of the voting age – especially for local elections – is justified and would enable a larger part of the population to participate in elections, therefore expanding the electoral body and the total number of voters and at the same time voter turnout – more people vote, more interests and values collide more legitimate the result. Right now the interests of the younger generations are underrepresented and so the electoral or referendum results do not present a real picture of the peoples interests. The picture on a smaller scale is very similar on the local level with some specifics which will be discussed further on.

Balance Between Generations

A whole social group is excluded from public decision making process on the sole ground of their age, or better because of their youth. There exist many initiatives from different youth organisations worldwide promoting the lowering of the voting age. Similar ideas can also be found in a Council of Europe General Assembly Resolution »Expansion of Democracy by Lowering the Voting Age to 16« from march 2011.

Because of the demographic changes in some countries, which are especially visible in certain municipalities, (less young people compared to elder generations) we could be witness to a conflict between generations if the younger generation which thinks that it is capable of making mature, quality and responsible decisions will feel disadvantaged and cut off from public decision making which influences their future. The right to vote would enable them to influence such decisions in a legitimate way by casting their own votes. If the legislature enables them to do so, it would increase their sense of possibilities to influence, which in time could develop into higher voter turnout in their age group. Political arena must not be a place where main topics discussed are connected only to the older generations, on the ground that they have social and political power that can be demonstrated on elections. Important political decisions (from social to ecological) would in such cases be more long term orientated, deliberate and quality, since they would be more future orientated. Younger generations would understand this as decision making regarding their future, and the solutions for the improvement of the future conditions of society and life in a local environment would be subject to more control, because their realization is in the best interest of this younger generations.

There also exist a wide divide between younger and older legislative or local governing body structures and institutions, that does not express the actual structure of society. Although, general representative bodies such as legislative or local bodies represent (local) society as a whole – without any age limitations. The governing bodies are constituted of representatives not belonging to young generations, since they are not allowed either to vote or to run for election, and therefore cannot identify themselves with institutions on the structure of which they have absolutely no influence.

Some respected constitutional scholars like Dieter Suhr claimed that our democracy is based on an error that »the people« is constituted only of adults, while others thought that in a real representative democratic society every voice should be heard and that representative democracy in a state where the right to vote is limited to individuals older than 18 years of age is a myth used to hide systematic age discrimination of children, and that such age limitations deny human dignity and present a violation of the general right to vote (Merk, 1996:12 and 2006: 22, 23). The removal of the voting age would mean that the right to vote is a natural human right, but would also open up new questions regarding who would vote »instead« of the children, who are too young to understand the meaning and effect of elections. If the parents or other legal guardians would execute this in their children name it is known as demeny voting and was already proposed in certain countries (Sanderson, 2007). For example in Germany in 2003 47 member of Bundestag proposed such a solution in a document »Mehr Demokratie wagen durch ein Wahlrecht von Geburt an« , the prevailing argument being that demographic changes demand a reconsideration of the intergenerational contract and that the right to vote is a fundamental basis of every democratic society and therefore limiting this right for children and teenagers on one hand raises a question of the principle of equality before the law and on the other hand encouraging politics which shifts the burden on younger generation.

Similar was the situation in Slovenia where in 2002 a group of 24 members of parliament proposed a constitutional change to lower the right to vote (suffrage) from 18 to 16 years (Ribičič, 2002, 2003). None of these proposals succeeded. Maybe some part of the failure can be contributed to the “all or nothing” stance regarding the lowering of the general voting age. The results might have been different if the proposal referred to or was limited only to lowering the voting age for local elections (as the first step). Such case would make it easier for the legislator to except certain arguments in favour of the proposal since it would not be directly affected by the proposal. In the Preamble of the European Charter of Local Self-Government we can read that “local authorities are one of the main foundations of any democratic regime”, and that “the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs is one of the democratic principles…” that can be most directly exercised at a local level. The support of local authorities could also be important in the decision making process from the “building democracy from the bottom up” point of view. If we take a look at 2014 State of Participatory Democracy Report we see that one of the goals for local authorities should include the promotion of “youth voice”. Young people are often seen as a driving force for local democracy. Democratic countries that have an inclusive system on local level that enables young people to take part in local decision-making also rank higher in the Participatory Local Democracy Index. What better way to give the youth a proper voice than by giving them the right to vote.

(In)experience, Competence, Legitimate Decisions and Quality of Choice

Most common argument against the lowering of the voting age are that young people are inexperienced, immature, lack knowledge, political interest and motivation, are incompetent of quality decision simply do not stand. Many researches indicate that the younger generation (16 – 18 year-olds) is just as educated and familiar with public matters if not even more compared to the older generations (Hart and Atkins, 2011).

On the other hand a low level of voting should be particularly worrying when the reason behind it is a reflection indifference, disenchantment or lack of capability or competence (Chan and Clayton, 2006).

With the development of modern information society and easy access to certain social media the younger generations have a practically unlimited access to day to day information on politics, state, public affairs etc. and are probably better equipped with information or have easier access to them, compared to some members of older generations. This vital information makes them competent to make a »quality« decision. At this point I cannot turn away from the question of quality and legitimacy of a young voters’ choice. It is very hypocritical to claim that an individuals’ choice in election is not quality choice since quality in such cases is very subjective, depending on the interests and values of a specific and individual voter. In this respect all choices can be and are quality choices. Allowing younger generations to vote would probably enhance the quality of choice and result since new, fresh ideas and habits would appear on the political map that would promote progress and perspective instead of reinforcing old and obsolete patterns.

Modern mass media in the 21st century has a tremendous effect and can reach and activate greater audiences. For instance in Slovenia 82 percent of Slovenian youth (aged 16–27) use the Internet as their main source for acquiring information on current political events. Likewise, 71 percent of Slovenian youth obtain information about politics from television. .

Young voters may also prefer new and different model of political participation over traditional forms such as electoral participation (Topf, 1995).

Generations used to following the media, collecting information, picking out and buying products, paying their bills by internet etc. has become detached to certain traditional ways of doing things that require physical attendance at a certain place like elections. Such ways of casting a vote could be modernized by electronic voting, which would bring the act of voting closer to the everyday of younger generations and would make it easier for them and encourage them to vote (with regard to the secret ballot). This could also add to the level of democracy in a society, one of which aspect is also (voluntary) voter turnout.

Some think that cast votes should reflect citizens’ true preferences, and choices made in elections or votes given should be consistent with the citizen’s views, attitudes and preferences (Lau et al, 2008; Lau, Redlawsk, 1997). This would have negative consequences for democracy (Wagner, Johann and Kritzinger, 2012: 374). This however is true only if the young voters are not tricked into believing something is in their own interest’, or that a political program of a political party will be realized, but the reality later shows a different story.

All and all, every choice is a legitimate choice. This later statement originates from a simple claim that political parties or candidates at elections as well as choices on a referendum must be constitutionally and legally admissible – must fulfil all legal requirements to be able to participate in election etc. Therefore any choice a young voter would be – regarding electoral or referendum choice – is a legitimate and quality choice.

Younger age has some other positive aspects. Young voters are largely still involved in some sort of compulsory school education, mostly live at home and are more involved in their local environment. This period of their life and the environment surrounding them is relatively stable (parental, school and local influence). It is therefore easier to develop the so-called voting habit at an earlier age, since the environment surrounding a younger individual is more encouraging for a young voter to take part in elections (Plutzer, 2002; Franklin, 2004; Highton and Wolfinger, 2001; Bhatti and Hansen, 2010 ).

The consequences of such changes will be positive if they help to encourage young people to participate in the democratic process, encourage the development of voting habit ensure the representation of the young voters interests (Wagner, Johann and Kritzinger, 2012: 373).

There are many possible solutions to enable someone to vote at an earlier age. One of them is connected to the so-called »birthday risk«. An individual can vote only after reaching the voting age, but the closer the election day and an individuals’ birthday are, the bigger the chance he will take part in elections, instead of another individual who will have to wait several months or even years after reaching the voting age to get the chance to cast his or her vote (Folkes, 2004, p. 52-56).This risk can be lessened by different possibilities such as the »voting year benefit«, meaning that a voter would be able to vote from the beginning of the calendar year in which he or she turn old enough to vote (Zagorc, 2006: 338).

The argument that the right to vote belongs only to experienced, mature and capable of quality decision making individuals has also been rejected by different international documents and court decisions.

At the end, most of the presented factors such as motivation, knowledge etc., do not help explain the low turnout rates among young voter, so we cannot claim that young voters fail to vote for reasons particularly troubling for democratic legitimacy (Wagner, Johann and Kritzinger, 2012). Most of the reasoning used for state elections applies also for local elections.

Low Voter Turnout

One of the later and main reasons for upholding status quo regarding the voting age is also the presumption that younger voters do not actively participate in election or do not turn out to vote therefore limiting the legitimacy of electoral result. Some other motives and reasons causing low turnout must also be considered.

Many researchers of late have detected low levels of youth political participation in established democracies. This is up to some extend true also for Slovenia, especially regarding participation in elections. But factual participation in elections regarding youth (in this case 18 to 27 years of age) does not give us a reliable data on the potential participation in election of the 16 (or lower) to 18 year group. The last age group has its own characteristics.

The emphasis should not be on the (youth) voter turnout, because the willingness of the young generation to partake in election, should not be crucial in deciding whether or not to lower the voting age. Such a case would again subdue the younger generation to a stricter standard than the ones that apply to older generations. Once a person reaches a certain age and acquires the right to vote no one asks if this individual participates in elections or referendums and realizes his right. There are no discussions on whether they should be deprived of his voting right if they are not active in the use of this right. Even systems with mandatory voting do not anticipate such sanctions. Therefore the argument of low youth voter turnout cannot be an accepted argument against a lower voting age.

Otherwise the same reason of »low voter turnout« can be used as an argument for enacting a rule that would take away the right to vote for those individuals who fail to exercise their right without an excusable reason.

Later we will show that the prediction of “low turnout” is not entirely true which can be empirically proven at least in the case of local elections.

The same argument is without a doubt used differently for different generations in society, with one extra very important difference – low young voter turnout is an assumption while voter turnout of older generations who already attained the right to vote is a proven fact. The legislator therefore denies a young generation to vote among other reason because of a presumption of a low voter turnout, while at the same time allowing older voters to participate in following elections or referendums although if we would prohibit those individuals to vote it would probably result in higher voter turnout.

This leads to an illogical conclusion that the legislator prohibits younger individuals, who wish to participate in elections or referendums to do so on a presumption that they will not turn out, while at the same time we offer every opportunity to older generations to participate in public decision making solely on the grounds of their age and do not take this opportunity away even if they choose not to use it. Therefore the deprivation of someone’s right to vote on the grounds that he or she did not turn out for election day is an inappropriate measure, as well as unfounded opposition to lowering the voting age on the grounds of presumed or expected low voter turnout of the young generation is. Acting on a presumption is not the same as acting on fact. Younger generations should be given the opportunity to prove whether such presumptions are fiction or fact.

Increased Participation and Voter Turnout, Active Citizenship and Citizenship Education

Electoral or voter turnout in most of modern democracies has declined in the last thirty years, This is contributed to low voter turnout by young eligible voters. This general trend towards declining voter turnout or participation is especially noticeable in Western Europe (Aarts, Wessels, 2005) and wider.

It is often argued that the younger generations exhibit low political interest (Blais et al., 2004)

It is feared that it will cause a decline of democratic legitimacy if the elections fail in its role as the »institutional connection« between citizens (voters) and the state (Topf, 1995a). Same can be said in relation to local elections.

Some scholars see the reasons behind this in different values and interest prevailing between different generations, since the young generation does not consider elections in the sense of a »civic duty« (Blais, 2000; Inglehalt, 1990; Dalton, 2009; Mattenberg, 2002), while others see the prevailing reasons in the fact that to young voters elections do not really seem competitive enough. They have the feeling that their voices cannot change anything, have no effect (Franklin, 2004: 25-30). This is not entirely true for local elections. (Dis)belief in political influence is very important regarding the participation and voter turnout. In Slovenia the study showed that “In general, more young people (16 – 27 years old) have higher self-perceived influence on local institutions than on national institutions.” and that “young people (18 – 27 years-old) are more likely to attend elections if they believe that they have more influence on national institutions or on local institutions” . More young people believe they have influence on the local level and in local elections. Similarly interesting is the fact that in Slovenia local institutions are much more trustworthy for young people (16 – 27) than national institutions or political parties. 34 percent of young people trust (very much or to some extent) local government/mayor/municipal council, while on the other hand the trust is much lower for national institutions such as Government (12 percent), Parliament (11 percent), Political Parties (8 percent). Participating in local elections for young generation is therefore more interesting and appealing.

People under 18 or 21 have different interests than older generations., Therefore a low turnout of those under 18 leads to an underrepresentation of those interests or unequal representation of interest connected to different generations which would have negative consequences for democracy (Verba, 2001).

One of the possibilities to increase young voter participation could be (citizenship) education which could reaffirm or strengthen the bond between young individuals eligible to vote and encourage them to take a more active part in public affairs such as elections, referendums etc. This could be done by teaching the basics of a state constitutional order, electoral and referendum system, system of local self-government etc.

We already established that a higher voter turnout means a more legitimate result in elections. Therefore a high(er) level of voter turnout at elections is often understood as an indicator or sign of a healthy democracy (Fieldhouse, et al., 2007).

Some argue that a low turnout is an indication of high satisfaction with democracy, and therefore a low turnout among younger voters does not endanger the health of democracy (Dittrich and Johansen, 1983, Lipset, 1959). Although this might be true from a perspective that they are satisfied with their interest being realized without their turnout it is not very likely.

When a voting age is lowered a new group of potential voters appears – a young(er) generation – with different values and interests. We can even expect a proportional rise of voter turnout due to the fact that, because of the entry of new interests and values through the new electorate, the later will try to enforce them, which would stimulate the rest of the age or generational groups of voters with different values and interests to actively participate in elections and by doing so enforcing their interests, which would result in the enforcement of a wide variety of interests, together representing a wide mixture of different interest, the sum of which can be described as a wide social interest or even as public interest. Or as the Council of Europe resolution Expansion of democracy by lowering the voting age to 16 puts it »The first argument is the expansion of democracy. An election which also includes 16- and 17-year-olds is more representative than one which includes only those over 18. Adding another section of society increases the representativeness of those elected and there is no counter argument to this…. Lowering the voting age to 16 would continue this trend, making democracies more democratic by including more citizens in decision-making processes. European society is subject to constant change, new challenges, needs and opportunities, especially for young people«. Of course there is no need to stop at 16, but 16 can be the first next step.

Political choices are legitimate if and because they reflect »the will of the people« – that is if they can be derived from the authentic preferences of the members of community.« (Scharpf, 1999:6). This supports the view that individuals who are capable and willing to partake in democratic public decision making should be able and allowed to do so.

Therefore democratic input legitimacy can be negatively affected if a lower voting age extends suffrage to young citizens who are not motivated or capable to take part in public decision making through elections or referendum (Wagner, Johann and Kritzinger, 2012).

In the case of Slovenia a study was carried out recently on the situation of youth in Slovenia. The findings conclude that the youth is relatively uninterested in politics in general, are not burdened by ideology, don’t feel represented (by political institutions), are not satisfied with democracy and its institutions, feel they lack influence on politics etc. On the other hand the youth feels they have more influence on local (rather than state) politics and would more actively take part in elections if they had more influence – a step in the right direction is to enable them to participate in elections. Their trust in local political institutions (mayors and municipality councils) and local politics is also relatively high.

The later statements are empirically harder to test since there is not much data on the subject, a short analysis will follow on the case of Austria. Nevertheless studies conducted in Austria thus far found an increase in political interest among 16- and 17-year-olds following the lowering of the voting age (Zeglovits and Zandonella, 2013).

A Comparative Approach

Many countries are considering the lowering of the voting age to 16 (most of them have the voting age set somewhere between 18 and 21 years of age). Some empirical data on the impact of the lowering of a voting age can be found in the case of neighbouring Austria.

At the moment the only European Union country which lowered the general voting age to 16 is Austria, while a rare few other countries outside EU made similar changes e.g. Argentina, while debates on the subject are going on in many countries such as Malta, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, United Kingdom etc. Estonia is the latest newcomer to the family of countries which lowered the voting age (from 18 to 16 years of age) for local elections in May 2015. The result of the constitutional change is that in 2017 when next local elections for local government councils 24.000 young Estonians will be able to cast their vote. The reasoning behind the decision is seen through some of the discussions in the Parliament. The lowering of the voting age as the parliamentarians saw it is a sign of trust towards the younger generation, it enables them to actively participate in society, is an important development to democracy, it allows young people decide to on the progress of their local communities, it might increase the interest of young people in politics etc. One interesting argument from the initators of the constitutional change was the ageing of Estonian society. Therefore the importance of senior voters, whos number is growing is increasing in elections. At the same time age of representatives passing decisions on the issues concerning the life of younger people is ever growing – the young do not feel represented.

In Slovenia for instance there are few examples of members of Parliament or municipal councils below the age of 25, so that even those young individuals with the right to vote end up for years only deciding on the election of older before being themselves able to successfully run for public office. In the Parliament’s second house – the National Council – which represents special local and professional interests, the young also find no special representation. For these reasons, the interests of the young find themselves wading as salmon against the stream of predominant interests trying to reach the representatives elected by their parents and grandparents. There can be no doubt that they are not in the same position as the elderly and their interests, which are represented through the deputies they themselves elected. The young and their interests face a significant two-stage obstacle on the road to the representative bodies: first, they are represented by deputies who cannot be given binding instructions (Art. 82 Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia) and second, these deputies have been elected by the older generations in line with their own interests and beliefs. Thus, the representation of the young and their interests is a special kind of two-stage, cascade representation. It is therefore of great significance that the voting age be lowered as much as possible and not remain at the age of 18, where it has been maintained for the last 70 years. In so doing, less young individuals will be in the position of having their interests represented on the basis of the described double mediation.

In Ireland a referendum should have been held before the end of 2015 on the lowering of the voting age, since the majority of the Convention on constitution members recommended that the voting age should be lowered from 18 to 16. The Irish government still has not kept up to their promise but instead organized a referendum on the question of the eligible age to run for president – Voters were asked whether to reduce the minimum age of presidential candidates from 35 to 21 years. The results were 73.1% against and 26.9% in favour of lowering the age limit. Interesting enough is also an agreement between the Scottish government and the government of United kingdom, that gave the Scottish Parliament the power to decide whether 16 and 17 years old would be allowed to vote on the referendum regarding Scottish independence that was held in 2014, and by doing so giving the young the power to decide on their countries future. The Scottish Parliament later passed the referendum franchise bill allowing the »every 16 and 17 year old the right to add their voice to the most important decision made in Scotland in 300 years«. On the other hand some countries lowered the voting age for state (not federal), regional and local elections. Such are the cases of Bremen, Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony-Anhalt and Schleswig-Holstein, in Switzerland canton of Glarus and in three British Crown dependencies Isle of Man, Jersey an Guersey. Norway for instance even did a trial test of reducing the voting age for 2011 local elections where 20 municipalities participated and voter turnout among 16 and 17 year-olds was 58 per cent, compared to 64,5 per cent state average. The state average for 18 to 21 year-old was 46 per-cent and for 21 to 29 year-olds was 45 per-cent. Some reasons for such results are probably that 16 and 17 year-olds are more easily mobilised than their slightly older peers, they live in a stable environment (go to school, live with their family), still live in their local community.

One must also not neglect the efforts of the municipalities that (voluntarily) entered into trial to try to promote the local elections with the younger generation as much as possible and were also very much engaged in youth politics (Bergh, 2013).

On the other hand Austria reduced the (active) right to vote to 16 years for the elections to the EU Parliament, National Council (Nationalrat), president of the federal republic, referendums, candidate support and peoples initiative. The Government of Austria put in its program for the forthcoming 23rd legislative period the lowering of the voting age to 16. The debate in the Nationalrat was similar to paternity test, since political parties and members of the council mostly fought about who was the first one to propose such legislation, while most of the comments went in the direction as »it is about time for change«, »since young people pay taxes they have the right to take part in decision making about how it is spent«, »enrichment with the view of the young«, »the interest of the young are to connected to their (legal) maturity«, »a decision in support of more intergenerational justice since the population is aging«, »a great success for which the citizens will be more active and decision making processes (because of higher turnout) more legitimate« etc. One of the reasons for the lowering of the voting age was also the positive experience in Austria from the reduced voting age for local elections. But later on a research was carried out, showing that the voter turnout between the age group of 16 – 18 year old was relatively low, but that is not enough to claim that a certain voting habit has developed, since for that more time must pass. The findings in the research also indicate that young voters have more confidence in political institutions on one hand and less knowledge of political parties on the other, but this does not explain low turnout. The research also indicates that the quality of choice (capability to choose political parties that are ideologically closer to younger voters) compared to older counterparts is of the same »quality« therefore a lower voting age does not influence the quality of choice. Their findings on the lowering of the voting age indicate no apparent negative impacts on input legitimacy and the quality of democratic decisions(Wagner, Johann and Kritzinger, 2012: 372, 378, 380-381).

A study of electoral participation from two regional elections in Austria the “first time voting boost” is even stronger among youngest voters and is significantly higher compared to 18- to 20- year-old first time voters and not substantially lower than the average turnout rate at elections. The authors therefore concluded that their findings are encouraging for the idea of lowering voting age as a means of establishing higher turnout rates in the future (Zeglovitz and Aichholzer, 2014: 351). Therefore many positive aspects on the other hand do exist and should be studied carefully.

Conclusion

A close correlation exists between the influence of the people, citizens on the decision making process and the state of democracy in a country. We have shown that age is one of the factors still used to prevent certain groups or generations of citizens to contribute and take part in formal public decision making processes such as elections (on all levels) and referendums. Different countries have different age limitations for acquiring the right to vote. This differs even between different types of elections (state, local etc.) For most of the countries there still exists a leeway to changing certain age restrictions. The decision in such cases is left to the everyday legislator, who enjoys a wide margin of appreciation regarding the regulation of electoral processes. Lowering of the voting age, would increase the absolute number of the voter body or electorate, the consequence of which would be a rise of absolute number of voters and probably also voter turnout (proportion of citizens who can vote), but in any case more citizens (a larger portion of »the people«) would be able to contribute to the decision making. A high(er) voter turnout would in the end also mean more legitimacy for elected representatives, enacted decisions and laws passed through a representative body or referendum, since it has wide support of the people. De lege ferenda we shall probably witness a lowering of the voting age in constitutions and laws in many countries across the world, especially those with demographic challenges such as the ageing of society, that will try to balance different interest of generations through giving a real voice to the younger generation, a voice than can be used in formal decision making, in elections etc. Taking into account the legislators’ wide margin of appreciation in the field of state electoral system, we can conclude that a decision at the end will be left to him. The arguments are convincing, nevertheless if they are convincing enough to make the legislator do something about is a thing of political judgment more than professional. The municipality of Ljubljana has (in May 2015) suggested to the Parliament that in the future when the Government decides to propose a change to the Local Elections Act they should change the age limit from 18 to 16 years of age. Maybe Slovenia is following Austria’s footsteps – will be interesting to keep an eye on the development and realisation of such proposals in Slovenia. Some argue that’s Slovenia’s constitution prohibits the lowering of the voting age for local election to the age of 16. We are of the opinion that the constitution should be interpreted as not prohibiting the lowering of the voting age for local elections since municipal council are not even mentioned in the constitution. In the same manner, it would also be possible to enable the young to vote in the referendum, sign the legislative initiative etc. without having to amend the Constitution. Taking into account Article 15 of the constitution that “No human right or fundamental freedom regulated by legal acts in force in Slovenia may be restricted on the grounds that this Constitution does not recognize the right or freedom or recognises it to a lesser extent” the conclusion should be self-evident. Local elections are a very suitable first experience and a good testing ground for young people. Candidates on the local level are closer to them, they know them better and the fears as to what programs and parties the young might support are lesser as they are at the national level. Groups with highly original programs run in local elections (mushroom gatherers, beer lovers etc.) whereas after the failure of the Youth party several years ago, no one seems to come up with the idea of representing the interests of the young. The concerns of political parties would also likely be reduced after the first experiences with local elections.

By removing some age restrictions regarding the right to vote, we would help balance interest of different generations to make their choices about the decisions affecting their future. We are always in delay regarding measures taken in this field since the ageing of society is demolishing an already fragile intergenerational balance in favour of the older generation. Time to act is now, to give the younger generation in the present a chance to decide on their future. We have seen many ways how this is done. Local elections can be the “test” we need to see how the youngest electorate feels about taking part in public decision making at the local level. The prevailing arguments against the lowering of the voting age such as immaturity, quality of choice and low voter turnout have been theoretically and empirically proven as mere presumptions. The lowering of the voting age especially for local elections is justified, but the choice to do so or not is up to the legislator.

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Europe

EU: The stalemate in negotiations brings Serbia ever closer to Russia and China

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Serbia has been waiting since 2012 for the European Union to respond to its application to become a full member of the EU.

In spite of exhausting negotiations, this response is slow in coming and the main cause of the stalemate has a clear name: Kosovo. Before accepting Serbia’s application for membership, the EU requires a definitive solution to the relations between Serbia and that region that broke away from it after the 1999 conflict – when NATO came to the aid of the Kosovo Albanians – and proclaimed its independence in February 2008.

Serbia has never recognised the birth of the Kosovo Republic, just as many other important countries have not: out of 193 UN members, only 110 have formally accepted the birth of the new republic, while the rest, including Russia, China, Spain, Greece and Romania – to name just the most important ones – refuse to recognise the independence of the Albanians of what was once a region of Serbia.

The European Union cannot accept that one of its members is in fact unable to guarantee control over its borders, as would be the case for Serbia if its membership were accepted.

In fact, since the end of the war between Kosovo and Serbia, there is no clear and controlled border between the two countries. In order to avoid continuous clashes, Kosovo and Serbia have actually left the border open, turning a blind eye to the ‘smuggling economy’ that thrives on both sides of the border.

In this situation, if Serbia were to become a full member of the European Union, it would create a gap in the borders of the entire Schengen area, as anyone passing through Kosovo could then move into all EU countries.This is not the only obstacle to Serbia’s accession to the European

Union: many European chancelleries are wary of Serbian foreign policy which, since the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation, has maintained a privileged relationship with Russia, refusing to adhere to the sanctions decided by Europe against Russia after the annexation of Crimea to the detriment of Ukraine.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbia even agreed to produce the Russian vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ directly in its own laboratories, blatantly snubbing EU’s vaccine offer.

For the United States and some important European countries, Serbia’s formal accession to the European Union could shift the centre of gravity of Europe’s geopolitics towards the East, opening a preferential channel for dialogue between Russia and the European Union through Serbia.

This possibility, however, is not viewed unfavourably by Germany which, in the intentions of the CDU President, Armin Laschet, the next candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, has recently declared he is in favour of a foreign policy that “develops in multiple directions”, warning his Western partners of the danger resulting from “the interruption of the dialogue with Russia and China”. In this regard, Laschet has publicly stated that ‘foreign policy must always focus on finding ways to interact, including cooperation with countries that have different social models from ours, such as Russia, China and the nations of the Arab world’.

Today we do not know whether in autumn Laschet will take over the leadership of the most powerful country in the European Union, but what is certain is that Serbia’s possible formal membership of the European Union could force Europe to revise some of its foreign policy stances, under the pressure of a new Serbian-German axis.

Currently, however, Serbia’s membership of the European Union still seems a long way off, precisely because of the stalemate in the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations.

In 2013 Kosovo and Serbia signed the so-called ‘Brussels Pact’, an agreement optimistically considered by European diplomats to be capable of rapidly normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, in view of mutual political and diplomatic recognition.

An integral part of the agreement was, on the one hand, the commitment of Kosovo’s authorities to recognise a high degree of administrative autonomy to the Kosovo municipalities inhabited by a Serb majority and, on the other hand, the collaboration of the Serbs in the search for the remains of the thousands of Kosovar Albanians presumably eliminated by Milosevic’s troops during the repression that preceded the 1999 war.

Neither of the two commitments has so far been fulfilled and, during the meeting held in Brussels on July 21 between Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, harsh words and reciprocal accusations were reportedly exchanged concerning the failure to implement the ‘Pact’, to the extent that the Head of European foreign policy, Josep Borrel, publicly asked the two parties to ‘close the chapter of a painful past through a legally binding agreement on the normalisation of mutual relations, with a view to building a European future for its citizens’. This future seems nebulous, to say the least, if we consider that Serbia, in fact, refuses to recognise the legal value of degrees and diplomas awarded by the Kosovo academic authorities also to members of the Kosovo Serb minority.

Currently, however, both contenders are securing support and alliances in Europe and overseas.

Serbia is viewed favourably by the current President of the European Union, Slovenian Janez Jansa, who is a supporter of its membership because “this would definitively mark the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation”. The vast majority of European right-wing parties, ranging from the French ‘Rassemblement National’ to the Hungarian ‘Fydesz’, also approve of Serbia’s membership application and openly court the Serbian minorities living in their respective countries while, after the years of US disengagement from the Balkans under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, the Biden administration has decided to put the region back on the list of priority foreign policy commitments, entrusting the ‘Serbia dossier’ to the undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matthew Palmer, an authoritative and experienced diplomat.

With a view to supporting its application for European membership, Serbia has also deployed official lobbyists.

Last June, Natasha Dragojilovic Ciric’s lobbying firm ND Consulting officially registered in the so-called EU ‘transparency register’ to promote support for Serbia’s membership. ND is financed by a group of international donors and is advised by Igor Bandovic, former researcher at the American Gallup and Head of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, by lawyer Katarina Golubovic of the ‘Committee of Human Rights Lawyers’ and Jovana Spremo, former OSCE consultant.

These are the legal experts deployed by Serbia in Brussels to support its application for formal European integration, but in the meantime Serbia is not neglecting its “eastern” alliances.

Earlier this month, the Head of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, paid an official visit to Belgrade, a few weeks after the conclusion of a joint military exercise between Russian special forces (the “Spetznaz”) and Serbian special forces.

In the Serbian capital, Naryshkin not only met his Serbian counterpart Bratislav Gasic, Head of the ‘Bezbednosno Informativna Agencija’, the small but powerful Serbian secret service, but was also received by the President of the Republic Alexander Vucic with the aim of publicising the closeness between Serbia and Russia.

The timing of the visit coincides with the resumption of talks in Brussels on Serbia’s accession to the European Union and can clearly be considered as instrumental in exerting subtle diplomatic pressure aimed at convincing the European Union of the possibility that, in the event of a refusal, Serbia may decide to definitely turn its back on the West and ally with an East that is evidently more willing to treat the Serbs with the dignity and attention that a proud and tenacious people believes it deserves.

A piece of news confirming that Serbia is ready to turn its back on the West, should Europe continue to postpone the decision on its accession to the European Union is the fact that China has recently signed a partnership agreement with Serbia in the field of pharmaceutical research, an agreement that makes Serbia one of China’s current largest commercial partners on the European continent.

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Europe

NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Europe

Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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