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Youth surge and Pakistani politics

By Shahid Javed Burki
May 13 2013




By the time this piece appears in print, Pakistan’s 40 to 50 million people would have been to the polling stations to elect 272 members of the National Assembly and hundreds more who will sit in the four provincial assemblies. The exact turnout will be known after the results have been tabulated and released by the election commission. Given the enormous interest generated by the elections, it is expected that the turnout will be higher than was the case in 2008, the last time general elections were held. It is also expected that there will be a larger proportion of young voters in the electorate. Many of them would have voted for the first timeand their preferences will have a significant impact on the result.

Pakistan, with 190 million people, has one of the world’s youngest populations. The median age is only 22 years, which means that 95 million people are below that age. A bit more than 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30. A significant number of them will be voting for the first time. It is the electorates’ relative youth that makes the 2013 election particularly significant not only for Pakistan but for other countries in the Muslim world as well. All these countries have young populations and their political activism will change the political landscape of this part of the world. What does the youth want from the elections in Pakistan?

It is clear from the way the young have participated in the preparations for the elections that they have several clear preferences. They want a government that is answerable not only to parliament but also to a system of accountability that would ensure high-quality governance. While aware of the fact that petty corruption is entrenched in the Pakistani economic and social systems, they wish to see an end to rent-seeking at high levels. They want Pakistan to pull back from the edge of the economic abyss at which it has been standing for the last several years. They want the country’s economy to match the rates of growth of other South Asian states. They want the government to attend to the basic needs of the people. They want to bring in such disaffected regions as Balochistan and south Punjab into the mainstream of Pakistani politics and economics. Most of them want a clear separation between religion and the affairs of the state. And they want the country to fashion its external relations in a way that it suits its interests rather than those of the word’s large powers.

The May elections constitute a major step forward for the evolving political order. It has firmly established a political party-based system in which the three mainstream organisations will have national rather than regional presence. The PPP, the PML-N and the PTI may have strong provincial roots or roots in newly politicised groups — the first in rural Sindh, the second in urban Punjab, the third among the youth in the urban areas across the country — but have assiduously attempted to create a national presence. This will make it easier to make national economic and social policies.

It was political activism by the youth that encouraged — perhaps, even forced — the main political parties to lay out in some detail how they will govern if they are given the reins of power by the people. Such detailed manifesto-making is a new development in Pakistan’s still under-developed political culture. What will be an even greater departure from the norm will be that people — in particular those operating outside the assemblies — will hold the parties responsible to the promises they made for getting the people’s vote. It has been argued by many that what counts in Pakistan are links with the members of the communities to which the candidates belong. This makes the elected highly focused on very narrow community interests. The May elections are likely to break away from that tradition, and starting with the more developed parts of the country, party performance will begin to mean more than community (baradri) alliances.

The pressure from the youth will also alter Pakistan’s external orientation. Earlier, an insecure generation or two of leaders sought security from a deep association with the United States. This move was led by those who wanted to balance rival India’s continuously increasing strength. Moving in that direction, they had turned their back on South Asia and that region’s history and culture. Another group of leaders had gone to Saudi Arabia to cleanse the Pakistani version of religion by adopting the one practiced in some parts of the Arab world. Imran Khan had argued against both moves. He promised to build a Naya Pakistan on the country’s own soil.

Whether the May elections will give Khan a prominent seat at the policymaking table, the youth surge he has produced will bring about fundamental changes. The centre of gravity of the political system has moved from the old and tried to the young and aspiring. Resulting in sympathy, Imran Khan’s fall and injuries on May 7 will only add to the pace of change.

Originally published by Tribune Pakistan

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