New power generation: The world leaders of tomorrow

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Every politician talks of building a better tomorrow. But who will actually be in charge in 20 years' time? Our foreign correspondents meet the promising young men and women from around the world who are already on the path to power


CHINA



Bai Yitong, 20, the village chief with ambition



By Clifford Coonan in Xi'an


Bai Yitong is fiddling with her mobile phone as she discusses her political ambitions in the world's most populous nation. With her hair tied back tightly, and her trendy hooded top, she looks like one of the confident young women you see more and more of in contemporary China.



But Bai, who turned 20 in December, is one of very few women here who have made their way within the political structure.

In January 2009, when she had just turned 18, Bai was elected village chief of Gaojie, a hamlet in the mountains of northern Shaanxi Province.

"It's my dream since I was a little girl to be a successful woman," she says. "Some young people are lazy, but I feel terrible if I've nothing to do. When my father contacted me two years ago at college and asked me to stand as village chief in our ancestral home, I was moved. I had to agree."

The village has 321 families, with a total population of 1,217. It's a small village by Chinese standards, but her election brought with it frenzied media attention across the nation.

Power in China is in the hands of the Communist Party, which takes its mandate from the 1949 election that brought the party to power. However, there is a limited amount of grassroots democracy, including the kind of elections that brought Bai to power.

"I had no idea that I would become a village chief. I had seen shows on TV about local officials and read books, so I figured I could bring good things to the village," she says.

Behind her black-rimmed glasses, her eyes are sharp – her ambitions clearly stretch beyond Gaojie.

We are speaking in her room at a university in the regional capital of Xi'an, where Bai is studying politics.

"My dream is to take part in the National People's Congress. I've not yet done enough to get there, but it's definitely an ambition," she says.

The village election was an education in itself. She stood on an anti-corruption platform and won easily. A gift of 1,100 pounds of coal to every household, donated by her father, also won hearts and minds.

"The people were happy because earlier village chiefs had abused their positions. My family is rich and at a high level in the village, and this is why people trust me, because they know I will not cheat them," she explains. "I make all my own decisions. The first thing I did was to introduce a village games event, to encourage community feeling. That was a big success.

"Also, I am trying to make sure that all the young people who have left the village to go and work in the cities can come home for Chinese New Year. Most people are satisfied."

At the time of her election, Bai was not a member of the Communist Party, and she insists it is not necessary to join to do well in China. That said, there are few cases of anyone reaching major positions of power in China without joining the party, and soon after her election she was fast-tracked into the party, becoming a formal member in November 2009.

She is careful to insist that her political ambitions now depend on what the party requires.

"Next year, I want to be leader of the local party and village chief combined. I want to be the person my society needs," she says.

A major influence has been her Chinese history teacher, Zhou Zheng. "He spent many years in a village during the Cultural Revolution, and he has a lot of memories. He pushed me to try and become village chief. He is very serious about everything in life.

He always told me: 'Don't try to do too many things, it's better to do one thing well'. Nowadays, so many people are too materialistic, but Mr Zhou is pure of heart."

Bai is not immune to all popular culture – she loves Avril Lavigne and is a big fan of David Beckham. But she is not a reformer. Asked what changes she would like to see in China, she says she would prefer to enrich things as they are rather than change them.

"I would like to develop policies for healthcare, bring in good things for farmers, and I would love to do more to help old people. Most of the people in my village are over 40, so I care a lot about how older people are doing. My attitude to politics is that the current system is appropriate to China's reality. We can't choose a system that doesn't work for China."

ZIMBABWE

Promise Mkwananzi, 28, a minister in the making

By Daniel Howden in Nairobi

Promise Mkwananzi was born too late to be an admirer of Robert Mugabe. "He was the liberation hero to my parents but I'm not old enough to have been a supporter."

The young man had just reached university when the scale of the "old man's" failings were becoming apparent. The expanded education system was the most solid of the liberator's achievements since taking the helm of an independent Zimbabwe. So it was a shock when the spiralling economy prompted the abolition of student loans.

As normal campus life ended, Mkwananzi entered student politics and moved quickly to the fore. "I saw the injustice in front of my face ... I believed I could do something to help my country."

The would-be lawyer's prize for winning the leadership of the student union was a series of run-ins with the increasingly ruthless security apparatus. "It was one of those situations in which you think: going backwards you die, going forwards you die, better die going forwards."

He rattles off a list of beatings and arbitrary humiliations. A sham election in 2005 made it clear that the Mugabe regime had no intention of being voted out. Mkwananzi was among those arrested in the wake of the police beating of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. He was also slapped with a nationwide university ban for his part in the protests.

Mkwananzi was courted by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to run for parliament in the 2008 election. But when the Dutch government offered a scholarship, Mkwananzi opted for the chance to study in Utrecht. "On the one hand it meant leaving, but on the other I believed I had to finish my studies."

The irony is that the young politician is exactly the kind of Zimbabwean that the ruling party has so long claimed to represent. Born two years after independence, the son of a single mother in a rural area near the central town of Kwe-Kwe, he was the first in his family to go to university.

He is scathing about the leaders who have ruled the country during his lifetime: "The country is being held to ransom by a clique of its erstwhile liberators ... They have become very selfish and corrupt over the years, becoming a law unto themselves."

Being away, the 28-year-old says, has made him able to take a cooler view of the coalition government. He sees a "mass uprising", despite the inherent risks, as the only means of sweeping the old guard out of power. "My vision is a 'never again' approach, in which we transfer our trust from people to institutions."

When asked where he'll be in five years' time, Mkwananzi suggests a ministerial post; he's about to return home to take "the step into full-time politics". This being Zimbabwe, instead of a cabinet post, there could be a prison cell waiting for him: "I might be arrested."

BRAZIL

Manuela D'Avila, 29, sensation of the left wing

By Jan Rocha in Sao Paulo

She was first elected to the Brazilian congress with over 270,000 votes, at the age of just 25. Four years later, in October 2010, Manuela D'Avila was re-elected with a vote of half a million, an unprecedented win for a female candidate.

And all this happened in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, known for its "gaucho" traditions of frontier toughness. The state is also the birthplace of supermodel Gisele Bundchen and some critics have suggested it was D'Avila's own beauty that helped her to win so convincingly.

D'Avila, who is now 29, dismisses this theory impatiently. "It was only the press that talked about my looks," she says. "I was elected because I was a young candidate in a young country. It was a question of identification. I already had a track record."

D'Avila's career began in the 1990s when she got involved in student politics. She studied journalism at the Catholic university in Porto Alegre, her home town, soon becoming a student leader, then vice-president of the national student's union. Then she joined the Partido Comunista do Brasil.

Why join the Communist Party when Communism had collapsed all over the world? "It was the most organised party among the students," she says now.

"They opened my eyes to wider issues, like the government's attempts to privatise the state oil company, to privatise mineral production. They wanted to roll back the state. But in a country like Brazil, where inequality is so great, the state is needed."

D'Avila's middle-class parents – her mother is a judge, her father is a university professor – suddenly found themselves with a daughter who had become not only a politician (a vilified class in Brazil) but a Communist politician. At first they were alarmed, she says, but now they're proud.

In congress, D'Avila's interests are diverse, covering youth and sport, freedom of the internet, and gay, lesbian and transsexual issues. But education is her passion. An OECD study on the abilities of 15-year-olds has just put Brazil a miserable 53rd out of 65 countries.

"Education has to be a priority," she says firmly. Most Brazilian children go to school now, but hours in the classroom are short, and most teachers are still underpaid and undertrained. "We have to make the schools attractive to young people."

To put her ideas into practice, in 2010 she will run for mayor of Porto Alegre. It will be her second attempt. In 2008, even her personal popularity couldn't compensate for the limited support for the Communists.

In congress, D'Avila is one of only 43 female representatives (of a total of 513). Yet Brazil has just elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff. "President Lula, after eight years in government, left a good legacy. Dilma ought to be able to bring in big reforms. The world's in a state, but it's a good moment for Brazil."

ISRAEL

Alon-Lee Green, 23, activist and organiser

By Catrina Stewart in Tel Aviv

It seems unlikely that Alon-Lee Green will ever lead Israel, but perhaps he should. This lanky 23-year-old – his father a bookseller, his mother a painter – is bursting with ideas about how to bring peace to a region wracked by conflict for decades, and he's convinced that Israel's current policies are courting disaster.

But identifying with Israeli-Arab parties in a country where even the moderate left seems a spent force makes him virtually unelectable – for now, at least. Which seems to suit him fine.

"What is a politician? A person involved in politics? Then this is what I and all my friends are now," says Green, a member of Israel's Communist party, which is part of the Hadash front, a political coalition of Jewish and Arab-Israeli parties. "I recognise that parliament is a very good tool to change reality, but it's not the only one."

Green's political awakening came in 2006 with the arrival of Israel's unpopular month-long war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. As one of the first to take to the streets to protest against Israel's aggression, he revelled in the thrill of uniting in a common cause as the number of demonstrators swelled to more than 10,000 in a matter of weeks.

His next crusade was a more local affair, pitting him against powerful commercial interests. A poorly-paid shift manager in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain, Green tired of seeing the management pinch his tips, and persuaded his disillusioned co-workers to form a union.

He was sacked for his stance, but was determined to fight his dismissal: the courts found in his favour, and he got his job back. Coffee Bean employees now enjoy some of the best working conditions among any cafés in Israel.

"It was a wonderful thing to see the process that [my colleagues] went through," says Green. "They weren't political people, but they began to believe that a stubborn struggle would help achieve things."

Belief in the power of the struggle has proved central to this young activist's political philosophy. Sitting in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, where he is the assistant to a Hadash MP, Green says that he wants to change the world, but insists that every battle begins at home. "I want to devote my life to changing reality, but not only for me," he says.

"I'm part of the nation in which I dwell. If things are better for them [citizens], things are better for me."

It was his first encounter with an Arab in his late teens that first attracted Green to Hadash. He recalls hearing two women, a Jew and an Arab-Israeli – a descendant of one of the thousands of Palestinian families who took Israeli citizenship in 1948 – speaking "of the struggle for equality of women, and how it was related to the national struggle. That was the first time I understood politics as a shared idea rather than one people against another."

He has since watched with alarm Israel's gradual shift to the right, and what some commentators have described as a McCarthyism sweeping through Israel.

"Today, 43 years since the start of the occupation, we are seeing patterns of behaviour and ideologies that were originally used against the Palestinians, but are now being used against Arab-Israelis, left-wingers and anybody who thinks differently," says Green. "There's a clear threat to democracy in Israel."

The left's gauntlet has been taken up by a new, young generation of Israelis, who have thrown their support behind single-issue causes, such as supporting Palestinians whose homes face demolition in East Jerusalem. Many of these campaigners were very young during the Second Intifada, where the deadly suicide bombings led many older Israelis to reject utterly peace with the Palestinians.

"There is a general awakening," says Green. "A lot of people understand that there's a big struggle for what Israeli society will look like, and they understand their little struggle is part of the bigger struggle."

Green has no intention of giving up. He is considering going to university to study law. "I don't have that privilege to sit at home and wait for something to happen. Politics is one of the only places, if you're not an artist, to imagine something and make it a reality."

RUSSIA

Kirill Schitov, 25, face of conservative youth

By Shaun Walker in Moscow

His musty office has a worn, Soviet feel to it, deep inside Moscow's parliament. Like his surroundings, Kirill Schitov does not exude vitality. But at 25, he is Russia's most successful young politician.

A member of parliament since 2009, and a former leader of a pro-Kremlin youth group, Schitov is eloquent enough to get his points across, yet you can't imagine him inspiring millions of voters. But this is Russia – no politician is subject to intense scrutiny.

Born in Moscow in 1985, Schitov was five years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. He is of the first generation to have no memory of what life was like under Communism.

Schitov says his was a "simple family" with no links to politics. His interest began with his "school government, combined with the wave of 'democratic euphoria' in the 1990s, when politics was everywhere, on all the TV channels".

The 1990s were a difficult time for Russia, as a few people became obscenely rich while millions of Russians scraped by on or below the poverty line. It's hardly surprising that someone whose formative memories are of those chaotic years has an equivocal attitude to the concept of "Western democracy", which he says brought the country "a few pluses, but a lot of problems".

It was while Schitov was at MGIMO, a Moscow university specialising in international affairs, that he began to become involved in student politics.

He joined a group that would later become Young Guard, the youth wing of United Russia, the political behemoth chaired by Vladimir Putin.

The youth groups are famous for street demonstrations – Schitov recalls that he took part in several anti-smoking campaigns, where he and other volunteers tried to persuade young Muscovites to swap their cigarettes for chewing gum. The groups also indulge in less savoury activities, such as the hounding of journalists whose articles they disagree with. They were initially set up to ensure that the Kremlin had a street force in the event of a Ukraine-style "Orange Revolution", and are much criticised by the liberal opposition. Schitov says they are an excellent breeding ground for young politicians. "Any youth political organisation is a school for young politicians, and the only way to have modernisation of Russia is to renew and make the political elite younger."

In 2007, he made the transition into the adult branch of United Russia, where he worked in the distinctly Soviet-sounding "Agitation and Propaganda Department", combining it with leading the Moscow branch of the youth wing. Two years later he made it into the Moscow parliament.

Schitov says he's in favour of "conservative modernisation", and claims Russia is already a democracy. "The people are the basis of power and the institution of elections is the main way to change elites, so there is no doubt that we have democracy," he says, somewhat perversely given that his office is hung with portraits of President Dmitry Medvedev and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. The former was anointed after a carefully choreographed handover of power from Putin, with elections almost an afterthought. The latter was simply appointed by the Kremlin.

Despite his rise, Schitov claims not to be a careerist. "To make plans that by 40 I should be in a particular post is pointless," he says. "If I'm entrusted with more serious responsibilities, I will work hard at those as well."

AUSTRALIA

Wyatt Roy, 20, the country's youngest MP

By Kathy Marks in Canberra

When Australia's Liberals (who are roughly equivalent to the British Conservatives) selected a 19-year-old Wyatt Roy to fight a marginal Queensland seat, their political foes in the ruling Labor Party – and a good few Liberals – scoffed.

The idea of such a youth becoming a politician seemed ludicrous; Roy had left school only two years earlier and had never even voted – he was too young. At last August's general election, though, he defeated the Labor incumbent, a man three times his age, to become the member for Longman, Queensland, and Australia's youngest ever federal MP.

The politics and international relations student (he has yet to finish his degree) now occupies spacious parliamentary offices in Canberra, and enjoys a backbencher's salary of AU$131,000 (about £83,000).

A senior Liberal, the former Treasurer Peter Costello, has tipped him as a future prime minister. Reminded of that now, Roy laughs and remarks: "That was nice of him, wasn't it?".

Meeting the diminutive, slightly built Roy, you have to pinch yourself; he looks like someone's kid brother on a school outing to Parliament House rather than a federal law-maker.

The only Generation Y-er in Canberra, he deals with the relentless questions about his age – now 20 – with good grace. "I understand that's something people have a natural hesitation about, but I see it as an asset. If people bring different perspectives into the parliament, it becomes more representative."

The son of a strawberry farmer, Roy didn't join the Liberal Party until 2007. His childhood ambition, he says, was to become an Air Force pilot, and he began learning to fly at 13, propped up on a cushion so he could see out of the window. It was an economics lecturer at Melbourne's La Trobe University who suggested he try politics.

Why did he agree? "It's a terrible cliché, but if you want to make a difference, politics is a realm where you can improve people's lives on a daily basis."

A person of his age might be more naturally associated with Labor, which scraped back into power in August, or the Greens. However, Roy says he would never have been selected as a Labor candidate in Queensland, where the party is, he says, "very much beholden" to the unions.

Of the Liberals, who were ousted in 2007 after 11 years in government, he says: "I see our party very much as the party of opportunity. We believe in the individual and enterprise, in a fair reward for hard work, and that's my story and my father's story".

The farm run by Henry Roy struggled for years, and Roy's two elder brothers – both miners – had to leave school early in order to contribute financially. The first person in his family to finish high school, Wyatt Roy says his father imbued him with a strong sense of right and wrong.

Although remarkably poised and articulate, Roy is having to adapt to life in the public eye. His Facebook page has been pored over by the press – he regrets "liking" Victoria's Secret, the American lingerie company, and Kentucky Fried Chicken – and he was pilloried in a Sydney gossip column for indulging in "mad phone messaging, giggles [and] inappropriate banter" during an awards ceremony. He recently broke up with his long-term girlfriend, Emily-Jean Heath, a trainee nurse, their relationship a casualty of the pressures of his new job.

Thanks to social media, young people are more politically aware than ever before, he believes. He is diplomatic about Australia's political leaders, but wishes politicians were more willing to display their flaws, to be "a bit more honest with the public and share some of their problems". He also yearns for a longer-term approach to challenges such as climate change and an ageing population.

Roy – who gels his hair, lives in a rented seaside fishing shack and has an iPod dock in his parliamentary office – claims he is not missing out on his youth.

"[Before politics] I backpacked around Europe and lived at college. Just yesterday I was out sailing in my electorate. I can still go to the pub and have a drink with my mates. There's nothing wrong with enjoying life."

GREAT BRITAIN

Rachel Reeves, 31, Labour's bright star

By Andy McSmith

Britain's political leaders are getting younger, and rising to the top faster. It used to take years of hard slog on the back benches before an MP was invited to step forward and be a minister or shadow minister. But the new leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, wants a break with the immediate past, so in October he promoted a clutch of MPs to his front bench, only five months after they had arrived in the Commons.

The youngest, and some say the brightest, is Rachel Reeves, the 31-year-old MP for Leeds West – the first woman MP for that city in 40 years – who now speaks for the Labour Party on the complex issue of pensions.

It is a job that needs a grasp of economics, which is not a problem for her, because she is a trained economist, a graduate of Oxford and the London School of Economics, who has worked for the Bank of England, the British Embassy in Washington, and the Halifax bank. She is so well-qualified that she is likely to be under pressure to spend her whole political career concentrating on economics, though she is still trying to keep her interests wide and do a normal MP's job as well as tackling pensions policy.

Hers is an extraordinary CV for a Labour MP to bring to Parliament. Given how low members have sunk in popular esteem in the wake of the expenses scandal, it surprises some that anyone employable should want to go into politics at all, especially someone who could be raking in a fortune by working for a private bank.

But Reeves is a child of the Thatcher era – in the opposite sense to which that expression is used to describe leading Conservatives. She grew up in south-east London in the Thatcher years, the daughter of divorced state-school teachers, was radicalised by what she saw then, and joined the Labour Party while she was at school.

"My first political memories were when I was at primary school," Reeves says, when I meet her at her Commons office. "It was a time when funding for education, special-needs teaching and after school activities were all being cut back. If your parents had the money to pay for music or sports after school, you got it. If not, you didn't.

"I felt it wasn't right that the income you had at home could impact on the education you had. I went into politics because I believe politics has the capacity to change things for the better. The Labour Party stands for greater opportunity, for aspirations. A Conservative or a Lib Dem couldn't look you in the eye and say they believe in extending opportunities."

The first major political decision she made as an MP was to back Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership election, because, she says, "he was willing to admit to some of the mistakes we made in the past". Those included the Iraq war, and allowing people in the middle income bracket to feel "squeezed" as their standard of living stagnated in the latter years of the Labour government, while the very rich continued to prosper and, at the other end of the scale, people were allowed to cheat the benefits system.

Whether she is right or not about Ed, it was a smart move to step in behind the younger Miliband, when a much larger number of MPs were backing David Miliband, who seemed to be the obvious winner. It suggests that Reeves isn't just a clever economist, but has a sharp eye for how the political future might pan out. In politics, that often matters more than technical expertise.

INDIA

Sachin Pilot, 33, upstart of the political elite

By Andrew Buncombe in Delhi

When he was first elected as an MP in the state of Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot was just 26. Six years later, he is a junior minister in Manmohan Singh's government and a rising force in the ruling Congress Party. He says the most important task for him and his generation is to tackle India's huge problem of economic disparity, to help the hundreds of millions for whom the idea of Shining India remains a long distant dream.

"My generation of politicians is going to be judged on the economic opportunities we create for the people who have been left out," he says. "The gap between rich and poor, between rural and urban – we cannot have this disparity of opportunity and growth."

Bold words from a man born into a world of privilege. Pilot's father was an MP and had close links to the late Indira Gandhi and her family. After studying at Delhi's elite St Stephen's College, where he captained the rifle shooting team, he went on to study business, both in India and the USA.

He spent a couple of years working for General Motors and in his spare time obtained a private pilot's license, but politics always beckoned. When he was first elected in 2004, Pilot became India's youngest-ever MP.

Here in the sub-continent, perhaps more than anywhere else, the issue of youthfulness and politics is a complex issue. India is a country blessed with a population of which around 55 per cent is under the age of 25. And yet deference to age and experience has created a political landscape in which many, if not most, senior leaders are in the autumn of their years.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 78, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is 75, while the de facto leader of the opposition, LK Advani, is a sprightly 83. At the age of 40, Rahul Gandhi, son of the late Rajiv Gandhi and widely expected to inherit the premiership sooner or later, is considered a member of the "youth".

Many commentators point out that the longevity of political leaders and their unwillingness to stand aside creates a log-jam. All those wrinkled old faces probably help turn off many younger people from getting involved in politics, although the affable Pilot would never say as much. But he does admit the need for a mixture of old and young. "It's getting a fine balance of creative spirit and people who have experience and long years in office."

If Rahul Gandhi does become India's prime minister, possibly at the next election in 2014, it is a likely bet that Pilot, a charming and capable performer, would feature in his cabinet; the two are known to be personally close. Pilot's alliances have also been bolstered through marriage – his wife is Sarah Abdullah, daughter of a cabinet member. His brother-in-law is also a minister.

For all their personal talents, it says something about the elitist world of Indian politics that these men, all perpetuators of dynastic traditions, are considered a 'new wave'. What is certain, is that they represent the future of India's politics.

GERMANY

Agnes Malczak, 25, the game-changing Green MP

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

Agnes Malczak is adept at attracting attention. One of the most frequently published photographs of the 25-year-old Green Party MP, shows her on the night of last year's German general election nervously waiting to find out whether she was to become her country's youngest member of parliament. For a budding politician, the image is unconventional to say the least: Malczak has what looks like a tattooed tree branch extending from the corner of her heavily made-up right eye, covering her temple and part of her right cheek. The startling effect is enhanced by a pierced left nostril and bottom lip. Her appearance led the media to label her "Germany's gaudiest MP". The description annoyed Malczak at first. "Of course I found it irritating to be talked about only in terms of my appearance," she says. "But nowadays I realise that it is a two-edged sword. As an MP, I need publicity," she concedes. The face tattoo, it emerges, was only make-up. As for the piercings: "Well, if I were to take them out now I would feel I was changing my appearance because of pressure from the media".

It is not only Malczak's somewhat outlandish appearance that makes her stand out from the majority of German MPs: along with Angela Merkel, she is one of only a handful of women in Germany's male-dominated Bundestag; her parents are not Germans but Polish immigrants, and she is an MP for the Greens – a party that some opinion polls have rated as the country's second most powerful political force.

As a 25-year-old woman, she is also in the extraordinary position of being a member of the parliamentary Defence Committee. The body is responsible for monitoring Germany's highly unpopular mission in Afghanistan. She takes pride in the fact that she was recently the only member of the committee to vote against Germany continuing its military presence in the region. "Much greater efforts should be made to resolve these conflicts through diplomatic means," she insists. Millions of Germans would agree with her. In her first speech to the Bundestag, she demanded that the US withdraw its remaining nuclear warheads from German soil.

In her modern MP's office on Berlin's painstakingly restored Unter den Linden boulevard, Malczak comes across as unnervingly astute and utterly politically correct. There is not much evidence of a sense of humour. Direct questions are parried with answers such as: "That touches on a number of different levels which have to be dealt with individually". She gives the impression of being somebody who relishes a challenge.

Malczak's background partially explains her determination. She was born in Legnica in south-western Poland in 1985. Her parents were members of the then-outlawed Solidarity trade union which had been banned following the imposition of martial law in 1981.

Hoping for a better future, her parents emigrated to West Germany in 1989, only months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a result, Malczak was educated entirely in German. Her primary-school German teacher once took her mother aside and told her that the young Agnes didn't stand a chance of ever getting a grade A in spoken German because of her accent. "I don't think she meant to be nasty ... but it was incredibly hurtful of her to categorically rule me out."

She got her own back when she qualified to go to a German Gymnasium, the equivalent of a British grammar school. Malczak was the only student in her German class to get the highest possible marks.

It seems as if Agnes Malczak has been busy levelling any disadvantages ever since. She joined the Greens at the age of 19 when she was a student of political science at Tubingen University. She then got involved in environmental protection and the peace movement. Three years ago, she was asked on an internet chat forum whether she would consider running for membership of the Green Party leadership committee, and she was instantly elected. Then last year, she was nominated as a Green candidate for the southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg in the general election.

Because of her Polish background and German upbringing, Malczak is seen as a politician with an important future. Many think that she could go some way to completing the work started by Willy Brandt more than four decades ago by helping to repair the still-damaged Polish-German relationship. "I see myself as European – that means both Polish and German," she insists.

FRANCE

Bruno Juillard, 29, the assistant mayor of Paris

By John Lichfield in Paris

The French like to retire early but their politicians, like their pop stars, go on forever. At 55, President Nicolas Sarkozy counts as a brash youngster.

It takes someone special, or lucky, to break that mould, especially on the superannuated French Left. Bruno Julliard, aged 29, is a phenomenon. At an age at which many would-be French politicians are still researchers (with special responsibility for making the coffee), Julliard is assistant mayor of Paris and the national secretary for education policy in the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste.

Handsome, eloquent and a proven media star as a triumphant student leader four years ago, Julliard is tipped to emerge one day as a leading figure in a future centre-left French government. He is already in charge of the Socialist platform for the 2012 presidential election on the future of French schools and universities.

"To some, he is a teacher's pet whose career has been assisted at every stage," said one senior Socialist. "They are wrong. If this party has a future, Bruno Julliard embodies it."

How ambitious is Julliard? Does he – like Sarkozy once did – "dream of being president" while he is shaving?

"In France, you are not supposed to admit that you are personally ambitious in politics," he tells me. "You have to say that you 'feel you have a duty to serve'. But, since you ask, I don't dream of being president, not even when I am shaving."

Since Julliard has recently grown a beard, you can make of that answer what you will. He also predicts that young French politicians, unlike the present generation of fortysomethings, "will not have to wait for years for posts of responsibility". The internet-led world is moving so rapidly that older politicians struggle to keep pace.

"In the Parti Socialiste I see things – I'd better not say too much about them – which make me wince, ways of presenting policy which give a kind of Stalinist, fuddy-duddy image."

Julliard has already ruffled some feathers within the party by proposing relatively modest changes to Socialist schools policy. In March, he will challenge one of the greatest left-wing "taboos": the allegedly non-selective nature of the ramshackle university system, and the higher funding given to the parallel, very selective system of 'grandes ecoles'. "This system is a system for reproducing the elite," he says.

Equality is an important concept to Julliard. "The same problem faces all social democratic parties in Europe: how to make their values and ideals relevant to the modern world," he says. "To me, this must be through stressing the concept of equality."

Bruno Julliard was born into a political family. His mother was the Socialist mayor of Puy-en-Velay in central France. His step-father is a Communist trade union activist. Julliard says that his critics are wrong to claim that his career was pre-ordained and family assisted. He twice stepped down from leading positions in the largest student union, the UNEF, to concentrate on his legal studies. He was asked to run for president of the union in 2005 and rose to national prominence as a leader of the rebellion in 2006 against changes in youth labour laws.

In 2007, he asked the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, for a junior job in his private office. It was Delanoë who insisted that he should run for the city council and then made him assistant mayor for youth. Martine Aubry, leader of the Parti Socialiste, rang him in 2008 when he was on holiday in Morocco and asked him to be national secretary for education.

"None of this was planned," he says, "I never had a career plan. And I don't see myself staying in politics all my life. I have always wanted to start my own trendy restaurant."

Other people in the party suggest that modesty is part of Julliard's act: part of a carefully crafted image as a more laid-back kind of politician. Julliard rejects any suggestion of PR packaging, but says that parties do have to re-shape their approach to a world that is increasingly "suspicious of leaders, of elites, of all sources of authority, of all institutions".

"This is an even bigger problem in France than in other countries. We have always had self-perpetuating elites in French politics. They find the new world of the internet, where everything is scrutinised, scary and difficult to deal with."

USA

Cinthia Flores, 24, the Latino trailblazer

By Guy Adams in Los Angeles

Just 10 miles separate the bustling streets of Westwood from Echo Park, where Cinthia Flores grew up, but the two Los Angeles neighbourhoods might as well be half a world away. One is the home of UCLA, the prestigious alma mater of six Nobel laureates and 10 Oscar winners. The other is a hard-scrabble district where working-class people live and those of a delicate disposition think twice about venturing out after dark.

Flores, aged 24, has spent most of her life criss-crossing between the two. As a child, she rode buses with her mother Esperanza, a refugee from war-torn El Salvador, to clean the gilded mansions of the super-rich in Bel Air and Beverly Hills. As a young adult, she used the same route to venture home during occasional days off from studying for the Political Science degree she took at UCLA.

In the summer of 2009, Flores became the first-ever Latino elected to one of the most important positions in US student politics. As UCLA's Student President, she became, she says, a sort of "small town mayor", leading 27,000 undergraduates and 15,000 post-graduates.

"At the time, people couldn't believe I was the first Latino," she says. "And it meant so much, that the daughter of someone who lived the typical immigrant experience, could not only go to college, but also become a student leader."

To understand her achievement, you must appreciate the economic divides which separate America's haves from its have-nots. Fees at California's over-subscribed State-owned institutions, which are supposed to be affordable, run to $10,700 (£6,900) a year. At its privately-run colleges, tuition costs $25,000 (£16,000) or more.

"When I told my mother I was thinking of applying to universities," says Flores, "she said what a lot of people in my community say: 'Aren't they for rich people?'."

Flores funded her studies by winning scholarships and living from hand to mouth. After becoming an active member of student groups lobbying on behalf of ethnic minorities, and working as a "mentor" helping teenage members of LA's Salvadorean community apply to college, she was invited to stand for president at the start of her final year.

"It was a tough election," she recalls. "There was plenty of negative campaigning. People said I was going to be overly political, that I would misrepresent UCLA, and didn't have what they called the 'traditional school spirit'. People felt I was dangerous."

Flores's year in office coincided with one of the most challenging moments in UCLA's history: the university announced that it planned to increase its fees by 32 per cent. That sparked widespread protests, which she led. "I learnt to organise, and I think we did a good job," she says. "They didn't stop the fee increase, but they made students find a real voice."

She is now applying to law school, and wants to qualify as an attorney before working for a think-tank or other public policy organisation.

A registered Democrat who is passionate about immigration reform, she is also a figurehead in the fast-growing Hispanic community, which by 2050 is projected to represent more than 50 per cent of voters.

Could that eventually lead her to Washington? "I give good speeches. I'm good at getting a rise out of an audience," she says. "So in the future, who knows?"

Troubling times Issues the next generation face

Economy

According to US analysts, the National Intelligence Council, by 2025 "the whole international system ... will be revolutionised." India, China, Brazil and Indonesia are predicted to be big players on the international stage.

The current financial crisis will mean that the West falls further behind, and there will be a transfer of relative wealth and power East and South. An ageing population in the West and China may also prove a drain, with a shortage of workers to support the elderly by 2040.

Environment

Two degrees is the key figure, but preventing that rise in temperature will require massive global reduction of emissions. Unfortunately, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already said it is "very unlikely" we'll prevent this increase – meaning that we can look forward to "millions of people [being] at risk from drought, hunger, flooding" in the future, plus acid oceans, melting ice caps, loss of biodiversity and rising sea levels. By 2030, close to four billion people could suffer severe water stress, according to the UN's Environment Programme.

Technology

"Military research in the US and other leading economies will be heavily slanted toward automated systems to replace humans on the battlefield – whether on the land, sea, in the air, or in space," predicts Mike Treder, from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He also suggests that "the convergence of genetic engineering, cognitive science, and nanotechnology" could result in biotech 'upgrades' for healthy humans.

Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future, predicts that the debate over privacy/security versus open access/transparency in IT networks will continue to be contentious, as will the challenge of building economic models around systems which allow duplication for free.

Health

The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030, the number of people killed by Aids each year will have reached 6.5 million worldwide. While the eradication of Aids, malaria and tuberculosis should technically be achievable, the cost and scale of the task may prove prohibitive. However, the world's poorest are predicted by experts to live longer, with a reduction in deaths from infectious diseases. The leading causes of global deaths are likely to remain the same: heart attacks and strokes.

Military Flashpoints

The National Intelligence Council believes that in 2025, we may see conflicts over resources, including water and food. Fears will increase over "rogue states" having access to nuclear weapons and nuclear attacks become more likely thanks to "a widening range of options for limited strikes".

The Middle East is predicted to remain particularly volatile, with potentially escalating arms races between regional states. The US's military powers are likely to go into relative decline, with India and China having increased leverage internationally.

By Holly Williams

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