The youth factor

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Thousands of PTI supporters demonstrate in Islamabad in support of the Supreme Court’s contempt of court verdict against former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. AFP

Cries about change and a “tsunami” of young voters overrunning all else revive memories of a different era of political activism, calling to mind the lost fervour of the student and youth movements of the late 1960s, mobilised by the revolutionary sloganeering of Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung. The impact of those charged days was evident in Pakistan too, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto first riding in on the crest of youth activism in 1968-1970 and then falling victim to it in 1977.

As much as mainstream political parties in Pakistan try to revive that lost era of youth mobilisation today, their efforts appear to fall short, leaving many in the media to speculate that the so-called “youth vote” in Pakistan is more a mirage or an illusion, rather than a reality.

On paper, the youth bulge is undeniable. The latest electoral lists contain 83 million registered voters, of which 47 per cent are under 35 years of age, coming to about 40 million people. Voters falling in the 18-25 age bracket alone are a little more than 16 million — about five million more than the number of votes polled by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 2008 elections. The Herald looks at how this demographic development will impact the upcoming general elections.

The parties weigh in

Some political parties have aggressively campaigned to gain the attention of young voters over the last 12 months or so , with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) taking the lead. Being a relatively new addition on the political scene, it has built a more extensive ‘fan’ base in the youth-dominated sphere of cyberspace than any other party in the country by utilising avenues that others have not yet explored. With its Facebook page boasting 350,000 (and counting) “likes” and a separate youth page, the PTI is targeting these young individuals as the core focus of its election campaign. Besides public rallies, the party is also employing personalised telephone messages and videos disseminated through social media networks, all in an effort to mobilise the youth.

Muhammad Najeeb Haroon, a founding member of the PTI, confirms this when he says his party is committed to “addressing the concerns of the disillusioned youth, regardless of which background or stratum of society they come from.” Through promises of a better economic environment and increased job opportunities, the PTI aims at “providing youth with a place to voice their concerns, especially for those young adults who grew up in the tumultuous political environment of the 1990s,” he adds.

In another measure aimed at catering to the political ideals of educated, urban youth, the PTI is campaigning on a plank of openness and meritocracy. It is making its leaders declare their assets and has announced that it will give its members the final say in deciding who the party’s election candidates will be. How the party sells its ‘electable’ members such as Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi – who have been groomed in the very political values the PTI claims to eschew – to its idealist youth electorate will be one of the greatest electoral challenges it will face on election day.

Other major parties are also doing their bit to court this particular set of voters. Since coming into power in 2008, the PPP has aggressively been encouraging citizens to register with the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) and acquire Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs). The reasons are twofold: firstly, only a CNIC holder can benefit from public sector welfare schemes and bank and government loans which serve to motivate voters; secondly, without a CNIC a person can neither register as a voter nor cast a vote. The majority of new CNIC holders and voters are expected to belong to rural areas where the PPP believes itself to have a strong vote bank and where Nadra has more of a presence now than it did in the past. The majority could also be young people who need government documents for acquiring government jobs, grants, loans and other things more than the elderly do. This may point towards the PPP’s electoral strategy for the next election. The party also seems to believe that its new crop of leaders – Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Aseefa (children of Asif Ali Zardari), all in their early to mid-twenties – will be able to attract voters from their own age group in large numbers.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) has launched Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, as the young face of the party. It is also trying to appeal to students and their parents by distributing thousands of laptops among position holders in school and college examinations.

Which way will the wind blow?

While almost every political party is doing its part in attempting to attract youth voters, the job of those in the opposition or those outside the parliament is easier than those in office. Those not in power can easily target the disillusionment of a young electorate, perturbed by ever-increasing lawlessness, corruption, the energy crisis and a general mismanagement of economic affairs. Whether their efforts will result in these parties winning seats in the upcoming general election is a question different people answer differently, depending on their political affiliation.

For Raza Rumi, director of Policy and Programmes at the Jinnah Institute, an independent think tank based in Islamabad, the next election will see a rise in voter turnout and increased participation by young voters, especially in urban constituencies. Yet, he says, the effect will not be huge. It will only create a ripple, “narrowing the margins by which mainstream parties will capture seats in the parliament.”

The known unknowns

A youth vote is easy to talk about in urban constituencies with high literacy rates and easy access to computers and the Internet; it is simple in such an environment to disseminate political messages through social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. In more far-flung agricultural communities, the youth’s manifestation as a political phenomenon remains elusive. In rural areas, political parties, including the tech-savvy and slogan-heavy PTI, will rely as always on a combination of personality-driven politics and local development agendas. Given that 65 per cent of the population in Pakistan still lives in rural areas takes much wind out of the sails of youth mobilisation.

Another problem is the absence of comparable data from the past. The Election Commission of Pakistan does not collect and disseminate a break-up of polled votes on the basis of the voters’ age-group. Nobody knows how voters falling in the 18-40 age bracket, for example, have acted during polls in the last election; whether they turned up in large numbers at the polling stations or stayed at home for the most part is perhaps the best kept election secret in Pakistan. Consequently, as we do not know if youth participation was higher or lower in past election, there can be no definitive way of gauging whether it will increase or diminish in the upcoming polls.

There are no empirical studies interpreting voting patterns among youth, and no verifiable statistics concerning the possible impact of factors such as the media, peer and community groups or the political and educational environment on voter behaviour. Similarly, there is no research to understand how young people develop an allegiance to a particular political party or leader — is it because of party leadership, its policies or a combination of the two? These questions have never been studied in detail.

Whether political parties’ moves to attract young voters reflect a growing importance of youth in the national political arena is also not quite obvious. After all, in the run-up to the 2002 general election, the government of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 . The move was certainly not a result of domestic pressure from the country’s youth, instead, it came about as part of the electoral reforms Pakistan is committed to undertake because of international conventions.

The known knowns

Between 1997 and 2008, there have been 26 million new voters in Pakistan. Most, if not all, of this increase can be attributed to the fact that the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 in 2002. On paper, this suggests that there must have been a big increase in the number of young voters; yet there is no data assessing how many of these new voters went to polling stations to cast their votes in 2002 and 2008. Even if most of them did, their participation did not result in a large-scale shifting of political patterns — the beneficiaries of their votes remaining the same much-reviled dynasty-led traditional parties. Available data also suggests that voter turnout increased from 41 per cent in 2002 to 44.4 per cent in 2008, despite the fact that the PTI, the self-proclaimed party of the youth, boycotted the last polls.

Bring in the vagaries of the first-past-the-post voting system that Pakistan adheres to, where elections are not necessarily won by the contender receiving the most amount of votes, and you have in front of you a clear electoral challenge. Mudassar Rizvi, who heads the Free and Fair Election Network, a conglomerate of civil society organisations working on elections in Pakistan, highlights the highly erratic nature of the system. “The 2008 election saw the PPP gather close to 11 million votes and acquire 95 National Assembly seats [out of a total of 272 general seats]. The PMLN came second with 72 seats, though its vote tally was close to seven million. The Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) came third with 41 seats, even when it received about one million more votes than the PMLN did,” he explains. A similar trend can be seen in the case of the 2002 general election when the PPP received 7.6 million votes and captured only 64 seats, and the PMLQ, which received 7.5 million votes acquired 92 seats. Simply put, even if a party polls all the youth vote cast across Pakistan in the coming election, it may not end up sweeping the polls because, as the statistics suggest, winning a large number of parliamentary seats is not quite the same as getting a high number of votes.

Secondly, Rizvi argues, “one constituency’s electoral behaviour remains independent of another constituency’s behaviour, thereby making it futile to make any political projections and generalisations [and predict] outcomes.”

The road ahead

And so the question presents itself — can a young electorate significantly shift electoral momentum in the direction of change that certain political parties contend as being the demand of Pakistani youth? Can voters in the 18-40 age bracket change the face of Pakistan and Pakistani politics?

Answering these questions in the affirmative may seem too idealistic, given past voting statistics, or the lack thereof. Whether a need and impetus for change are real, or whether political parties are talking about the youth and pandering to its presumed demands merely as a new unexplored angle to win the next election can only be answered after the voters have given their verdict.

What is already becoming clear, however, is that the youth vote cannot be seen as a monolith: it has to be understood and analysed within the confines of constituency politics, as well as other contextual ingredients such as literacy, location and the socio-economic environment. By no means can it be considered an indivisible factor that can determine the result of an election on its own. Rumi, for this reason, rules out a path-breaking poll result in 2013 and advises caution in evaluating the impact of the momentum that youth awareness and participation in the political process may create. “The emergence of the youth vote as a swing vote is still far from being [the agent of] change,” he says.

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