In the ‘right’ direction

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Javed Manj is raving and ranting against “corrupt and inefficient” politicians in front of a crowd of approximately 400 industrial workers and roadside vendors at Rohanwala village at the outskirts of Faisalabad city. His tirade against the traditional political elite appears tired to an outside observer but to the villagers listening to him his words sound exciting. After he finishes his speech, members of the audience come one by one to him to pledge that they will vote for change. “I have addressed more than 500 such corner meetings during the last two years,” Manj later tells the Herald.

People like Manj, who is a local leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have developed a narrative immersed in the region’s political history and social realities. First and foremost, this narrative dwells on the insecurities of Faisalabad’s settler or migrant communities who came here in the first half of the twentieth century along with British-built irrigation canals. Manj says settlers/migrants, who form a majority of the population in the district, have an enduring sense of insecurity as most of them either have small agricultural landholdings or they do not own any land at all which makes them dependent on local industry, commerce and even bigger landowners to earn their livelihood. “These people are more easily attracted to the idea of change and revolution. In 1970s, [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto won all the seats from this district because people were attracted to his slogan of change,” says Manj.

And then he puts Bhutto and PTI in a single sentence — something that many other political parties have tried in the past with varying degrees of success or failure. Manj recalls how Bhutto came to Faisalabad in early 1970s and how writer and activist Tariq Ali organised a rally, raising slogans in support of a revolution. “Bhutto said in response to the slogans that revolutions don’t happen every day; there was a revolution in 1947 and there was another one in 1970 and the third one will come after 40 years,” he says and adds that Imran Khan in 2013 represents the change that Bhutto had predicted four decades ago.

Manj believes the signs of change have already started to become visible in Faisalabad. “The July 24, 2011 rally by Imran Khan was the biggest in the history of this district,” he says. “Khan’s Dijkot rally on October 7, 2011 was even bigger than the one by Bhutto [in the same town],” he tells the Herald.

Even after discounting the element of exaggeration in Manj’s observations, the fact remains that PTI is emerging as a political force to reckon with in central Punjab, primarily because its cadres are making a serious effort to make its presence felt in the urban areas of the region. They are undoubtedly buoyed by the big public rallies that Khan has addressed in different towns and cities over the last two years or so. After PTI’s March 23 rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, the party’s workers and activists are feeling a renewed level of confidence, leading them to stake their claim as being the biggest political force in the province. In another reflection of PTI’s renewed self belief is the party’s decision to field Khan as a candidate from one constituency each in Lahore and Rawalpindi — two cities in Punjab where electoral politics has long been dominated by Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN). With PTI making gains, it is unsurprising that people in most urban areas across central Punjab talk about PMLN versus PTI when they talk about tough electoral battles, rather than PMLN versus Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) as the case used to be in the past. “There should be no doubt about this after the March 23 rally; it is now between us and the PMLN in Punjab,” says Manj.

In another indication of PPP’s waning fortunes in central Punjab, it is finding almost no allies from among the smaller parties in the region. Even the leaders and the workers of the Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) – with which PPP is seeking to strike some seat adjustment deal in places such as Gujrat – see it as a foe rather than a friend. “We don’t interact with PPP workers even at the social level,” says Mian Imran Masood, a former provincial legislator and a PMLQ leader in Gujrat. Most small parties in the region either want to jump onto the PMLN bandwagon or see it as their only electoral rival. Masood, for instance, believes that the main battles in his district will be fought between his party and the PMLN.

Left to right: Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi; Imran Khan; Dr Tahirul Qadri

Left to right: Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi; Imran Khan; Dr Tahirul Qadri

The shift away from PPP has become highly visible over the last three years with the rise of many, mainly right wing, political parties and groups such as PTI and Dr Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). This has happened mostly at PPP’s expense. That the party has lost its status of being one of the two top contenders for power in Punjab is evident to almost all its political opponents. Azeem Randhawa, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) chief in Faisalabad, says there was a time when people used to say PPP would win if right-wing parties had two candidates in the same constituency. “This is no more the case,” he says, suggesting that the right-wing vote has increased so much that even when split within it will not result in an automatic advantage for PPP.

Some of the central Punjab parties and groups claim to be bigger than even the PMLN in their respective strongholds. This is exactly what PMLQ’s self-image is in the Gujrat district. Here, the family of Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi has succeeded in maintaining its status as a dominant political player, using its access to power as an effective tool to create and sustain an elaborate network of political patronage. Some PMLQ leaders feel no hesitation in admitting that their role as a coalition partner in the outgoing federal government has helped them to remain relevant in the electoral politics of Gujrat. “We have ministries, senate seats, development funds, jobs and other benefits,” says Masood, a close associate of the Chaudhry family. “People vote for us because they perceive us as [being able to] come to their help in times of trouble,” he says. During the two-and-a-half hours that Herald interviewed him in his public office in Gujrat, he was simultaneously addressing three different complaints by three different groups of people — one related to illegal occupation of land, another related to gas supply to a locality and the third about the admission of young boys and girls in a local college.

Some traditional right-wing parties, such as JI, also see the coming election as a chance to ensure their survival in the political field and, therefore, are making serious efforts to leave some mark on polling day. The party, according to Asha’ar Rehman, resident editor of daily Dawn in Lahore, “has lost its vote bank by allowing itself to be an appendage of the PMLN for far too long” but it is intent on keeping its fingers in the electoral pie by any means possible. Consequently, it is open to joining hands with any party except for PPP. While there are reports that JI is negotiating a seat adjustment formula with PTI, one of its central leader tells the Herald that his party will be making seat adjustments at the district level on a case-to-case basis. “It will not mean that if we have a seat adjustment in one constituency with one party, we will be bound to have the same arrangement with that party in any other constituency,” says Amirul Azeem, the JI spokesperson. “This means that we can have seat adjustments with more than one party.” Practically, this allows JI to have seat adjustment arrangements both with PMLN and PTI and that too in the same district.

Qadri’s PAT, after having proved its mettle in Lahore and Islamabad a few weeks ago, is now finding it difficult to repeat its performance in the electoral arena and its leaders say the party is not yet ready to take part in the polls. “Right now we are carrying out a membership campaign,” says Basharat Jaspal, who heads PAT in Punjab. He also points out that his party is not satisfied with the existing electoral system which is not conducive to bringing about change. “If we cannot bring change, I think, contesting elections will be meaningless,” he says. The other reason for the party’s indifference towards election is its electoral performance. So far it has only one election victory to its credit — Qadri winning a National Assembly seat from Lahore in 2002. In the absence of a strong presence in the poll calculus, PAT, however, has the capacity to swing a few thousand votes in many urban and semi-urban constituencies in central Punjab, usually in favour of some right-wing party. For instance, in Gujrat, says Masood of PMLQ, “PAT has supported us during the last two general elections.”

While it is difficult to predict which final combination will come about to determine the internal relationships between all these right-wing groups and parties in central Punjab and how they will cooperate or compete with PMLN or PTI, the situation throws up a definite conclusion: PPP loses its electoral sheen in the most thickly populated, most urbanised part of Pakistan — at least for the time being.

The youth factor

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.