Rosheen Kabraji
(Former Chatham House Expert)

As Pakistanis head to the polls on 11 May, there has been much debate about the impact the country's rapidly growing youth population may have at the ballot box. As polls suggest that many believe they are worse off now than five years ago, the attitudes and demands of Pakistan's youth must be taken into account to understand the country’s political trajectory.

Over 66% of Pakistan's total population is under the age of 30. Nearly a fifth of the 85 million Pakistanis registered to vote in the upcoming elections are between the ages of 18-25 years old and an additional 15% are between 26-30 years old. Although the youth are strong in numbers they have struggled to voice their demands in the cacophony of Pakistan's political arena. Thus far, the demands of the youth, alongside many other marginalized groups, have fallen on deaf ears.

The main political parties have been making their overtures in a bid to get young voters to the polling stations. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are keen to promote more engagement in policymaking through youth councils, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) has introduced a scheme to provide free laptops to students. However, much of the focus on the youth by these two parties has largely been prompted not by a concerted effort to empower and engage but from concern about Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party engagement with, and possibly gaining the votes of, young people. Standing on a platform of empowering the disempowered and disenfranchised youth, PTI has allocated over 25% of seats to youth representatives.

Unless the youth vote in large numbers, the attention given to them is likely to be short-lived once political campaigning ends. A lack of available information about voting data by age group makes any empirical comparisons with previous years difficult. While many young people are registered to vote the majority are based in rural areas. Less is known about their voting preferences than middle class urban youth who are more active and engaged with the elections. 

What do the youth want?

Looking beyond short-term promises that invariably arise at elections, it is essential to recognize emerging trends and deeper structural changes. For most young Pakistanis although terrorism is a serious concern, it is trumped by the need for basic necessities. Without adequate access to food, water, housing and electricity many feel they have little hope of an education or good job prospects. Unemployment, rising crime, rampant inflation, and corruption have all adversely affected the youth. 

The narrative that Pakistan's youth are writing for themselves is also sometimes contradictory, indicative of the diversity and divisions that exist along linguistic, ethnic and socio-economic lines. The youth are disenchanted and frustrated with past political systems, both military rule and democracy. A recent survey that revealed a strong preference among Pakistani youth for a Sharia political system before military rule and democracy is not wholly surprising. As in the UK, those who are disenchanted with the existing system vote for alternatives.  

Contrarily, Pakistanis currently seem to have a limited appetite for anything except democratic rule, and the youth leaning towards the right, away from secular parties, fits into the overall picture of a general shift to the right in these elections. A growing proportion of unemployed youth alongside a shift in power towards the right is a dangerous mix for a country already afflicted with a rise in extremism and radicalisation in the next generation.

Bringing out the youth vote 

PTI, who see themselves as champions of the youth agenda have been tapping into social media networks to reverse the trend and bring out the youth vote. However, television and radio will remain the most influential mass media tool as the majority of the population is still rural with little access to the internet. What is becoming more powerful is the mobile phone, as over 60% of the population are users. PTI has reported using telephony and SMS to organize rallies and run quick polls and surveys to compensate for the lack of online digital tools in rural areas. 

PTI has visibly got urban youth excited and engaged in these elections. Translating Facebook 'likes' into votes at the ballot box is another matter, particularly given the variation amongst the youth. Another unknown is whether PTI wins youth votes because of the party manifesto or whether they simply want a change from the old faces who have failed to deliver.

Although social media and mobile phone technology in Pakistani political campaigning may be in its nascent stage, it could have the potential to become a more significant factor in future elections. While we may see cases of individuals breaking away from decades old family political allegiances and ethnic voting ties, it will take more than a Twitter campaign to significantly displace these traditional voting patterns.

After the election

Most Pakistanis, not just the youth, are circumspect about any real change that these elections can bring, let alone strengthening democracy. The youth have an enormous amount of under-utilized energy and are very patriotic but are frustrated with the ineptitude and corruption of their current political representatives. If fair and free elections were to be held, it might help lessen the sense of apathy. Given how this has been the most bloody election campaign, the prospects for that appear slim. 

Amidst the various unknowns for this election, predicting youth voter turnout is at best, guesswork. What remains to be seen is whether the necessary policies are actually implemented to create a better future for young Pakistanis. First and foremost this will require reviving the economy and job creation on a massive scale given the size of Pakistan's youth bulge. While promises made at election-time are often only marginally fulfilled, the fact that all parties are attempting to appeal to Pakistan's youth is at least a start.

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