Dawn News

The ‘youth’ factor

LIKE many other important subjects in Pakistan, voting demographics and electoral patterns have rarely, if ever, been documented and researched.

Apart from a few scattered accounts from the 1990s, and one Craig Baxter and Shahid Burki tehsil-level study of the PPP vote bank from the 1970s, there has been little attempt to develop an empirical and factually grounded framework for evaluating voting preferences.

The most we have are clichés and generalisations gleaned from a party’s (or candidate’s) performance in specific geographical areas. And for all these spatial pigeonholes, largely unquestioned stereotypes for voters: the Sindhi/south Punjab poor vote for the PPP, the petty capitalist in Punjab for the PML-N, and the Mohajir middle and lower-middle class for the MQM.

For the purpose of mainstream analysis, dissecting the 40,000 or more votes of a winning candidate, or the 90 odd seats of a political party, carries little value. People, by default or design, will simply scratch a victory down to biraderi or some other non-quantifiable, equally mysterious cliché. (For the record, I have yet to see a constituency where one can find 40,000 petty capitalists, working-class Sindhi labourers, or members of the same biraderi).

However, not content with the pre-existing bonanza of politico-babble, mainstream media punditry has thrown up a new category, which we’re told will be a crucial factor in the upcoming general elections. Following the recent finalisation of the voters list by the Election Commission, the ‘youth’, it appears, have emerged as major players in Pakistan’s politics.

Numbers most commonly cited to validate this claim point to the presence of a large voter bulge in the age bracket of 18 and 35 which, according to some estimates, represents nearly 47 per cent of the total electorate.

Most analyses of this statistic have been premised on two inter-connected notions: the first being Imran Khan’s popularity amongst young people, and the second that a highly charged, immensely polarised political atmosphere — coupled with a successful mobilisation campaign by the PTI — will convert these potential voters into actual voters.

As a subtext, fortifying these notions is the idea that these 18 to 35-year-olds want ‘change’ — a wholly nebulous yet potentially powerful signal that corresponds very well with Imran Khan’s equally vague out-with-the-old-in-with-me message.

The newer generations, or the youth, are modern, we are told. They’re technology users, they’re educated, and are busy projecting themselves as active citizens of a retail society. They have grown in the sunshine (sic) of an ever-expanding media sphere, have access to information that the older lot never had and hence are in a better position to make informed political decisions.

In other words, the primary political divide in Pakistan, come 2013, could potentially be between the youth or the newer generations — often equated with urban modernity, individuality, and change — and the current status quo, equated with traditional associations, conventions, and norms.

What needs to be pointed out, though, in clear terms is that equating an entire age bracket with a set of socio-political values, and hence a political party, is expedient at best, and disingenuous at worst.

For starters, around 55-60 per cent of these young voters will be in rural areas spread far and wide across the country. It really doesn’t require stating but the mainstream caricature of youth doesn’t quite hold for a place like Layyah or Tando Mohammad Khan. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the concept of a connected, mobile, autonomous youth doesn’t exist in any dominant way in areas where agriculture is the primary mode of production.

Secondly, in areas where local political economy dynamics are tied to land and caste, conventional associations and relationships cannot be willed away by one’s date of birth. An individual who comes of age without having the option of migrating to a town, or of finding an alternative source of subsistence, will have to function in the moral economy of his previous generation.

This essentially means that socioeconomic ties and traditional structures will continue to influence political decisions well into the 21st century. This is not to say that rural voters won’t vote for the PTI — just that when they do, their considerations could very well be as ‘traditional’ as when they voted for another party.

That leaves us with the remaining 40 per cent of the youth electorate, or around 15 million total voters. In Karachi, where one would find a significant portion of this particular stratum, urban classes are divided along a variety of fissures that include ethnic and class lines. So far, there is very little evidence to suggest that a portion of this mobile middle and lower-middle class demographic, most commonly portrayed as the newer generation, has shown any tendency of shedding its ‘irrational’ Mohajir projection in favour of PTI’s change-toting modernity.

The narrative of ethnic nationalism — which rings loud in Balochistan and parts of urban Sindh — and political loyalty continues to resonate in many different parts of the country, with people both old and young, and will coexist with PTI’s newfound political relevance. The arrival of the Insaf Student Federation did not signal the end of APMSO, or the IJT, or even the MSF, just as urbanisation didn’t usher in the end of conventional forms of politics and of self-identification.

What all of this shows is that the language of politics, once one steps out of the world constructed by media punditry and half-baked analysis, is fundamentally quite different. The usage of a broad, homogenising category like ‘youth’ or ‘new voters’ fails to take into account the prevalence of pre-existing and more durable forms of identity and contexts that continue to shape Pakistan’s electoral landscape.

For now, the task isn’t to predict whether these new voters will help the PTI win or not, but to develop a deeper and more localised understanding of how political preferences are formed in the country.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. umairjaved87@gmail.com Twitter: @umairjav

Umair Javed teaches politics at LUMS.

He tweets @umairjav

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (5) Closed

Aug 14, 2012 10:18am
Good work. I would like to add that the term youth in Pakistan's prevailing political discourse is more of a symbol than a statement of demographics only. It refers to all people who have 'grown up' politically, can see through intentions of traditional political elite, are willing to take risk, and are rebellious to the status quo.
Aug 14, 2012 06:37am
It is good to read of an informed article for a change
Aug 14, 2012 07:43am
a man whose opinions i have grown to respect more n more...
Aug 14, 2012 02:09pm
The author writes the most boring stuff. Yawn. I slept halfway reading the article.
Aug 17, 2012 04:34am