THAT well over half the Pakistani population is now under the age of 25 is well known. But while there has been plenty of hype about the so-called youth vote, getting from the demographics to young people’s voting habits and preferences has generally been an exercise in speculation.
Now that voter registration is linked to computerised national identity cards (CNICs), some statistics are available about how the youth bulge has fed into electoral rolls. We know that nearly a fifth of the 85 million Pakistanis registered to vote in the upcoming elections are between 18 and 25 years old, and that another 15pc are between 26 and 30.
What we don’t know is how this compares to previous elections, since no data is available about the age distribution of voters in past polls. So the claim that young people will have an unprecedented effect on this year’s elections has no concrete figures to back it up.
Second, it is unclear how likely young people are to turn out on voting day, particularly since those who reached voting age after the elections were registered automatically once they got CNICs.
“For the first time we are getting bits of data on voters’ age distribution, but they are all pieces of a puzzle that hasn’t been put together,” says Mudassar Rizvi of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen). “There hasn’t been academic work on the topic, and we haven’t studied voting behaviour. A lot of the analysis has been based on assumptions.
“For one thing, voter turnout in Pakistan in 2008 was 44pc. So all 30m voters under the age of 30 are not going to be casting votes.”
Mr Rizvi also questions the assumption that the youth are more likely to vote for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), adding that there is no evidence to suggest that young people aren’t just as fragmented in terms of political preferences as the rest of the population is.
But a 4,450-person nationwide survey carried out by Fafen in January does provide some clues about how young voters might behave. Only 48pc of voters aged 18-25 said they intend to vote in the coming elections, far behind other age groups (68pc of the 26-35 age group said they would vote, and the number rises with age to reach 84pc of those above 55).
Another 47pc of those 25 and under simply didn’t answer the question, so the number who actually do turn up to vote could be higher. But what is clear is that the youngest respondents were either less enthusiastic about voting or less clear about whether or not they will vote.
Fafen also asked respondents whether they consider themselves to be associated with any political party in any way, whether as a worker, registered member, office-bearer or simply someone who is “close” to a party. While over half of those aged 55 and above said they were, only 37pc of the youngest voters — a level of political involvement lower than the national average — said the same.
One popular claim does seem to be borne out by the survey results — the youth’s attraction to the PTI. Of those who said they were affiliated with a party, the highest proportion in every age bracket named the PML-N as the party they were associated with. But among those between 18 and 25, 20pc — far higher than in any other age bracket — named the PTI. This number falls off sharply with age; even in the 26-35 bracket, only 12pc named Imran Khan’s party.
This may have something to do with the basis on which young people select their party of choice. The numbers show that voters above 25 are more likely to base this decision on a party’s track record of performance in their area — 16pc for this age group versus only 9pc for those 25 and under. Instead, 40pc of the youngest age bracket base their loyalties on a party’s manifesto and another 21pc on the party’s ideology.
But Dr Mohammad Waseem, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, argues that the popular perception about the youth’s preference for the PTI may be overstated because of the visibility of its supporters, the urban youth.
“Youth from bigger cities can make their presence felt through social media and cable television,” he explains, “but voting is also territory-bound and constituency-bound, and there are local power structures at play that limit Imran Khan’s penetration in many areas.
“Because urban youth are more visible, they have become a platform for the PTI to claim widespread youth support.”
Aside from party preferences, the Fafen survey showed that on several issues young people have opinions very similar to those of older Pakistanis. They are close to the average on questions such as voters’ confidence in Pakistan’s electoral process and whether or not respondents consider past elections in their constituencies to have been free and transparent.
So while the political views and voting behaviours of the country’s youth are widely speculated about, they are not particularly well understood. At the moment there seems to be little hard evidence to suggest that young people will behave significantly differently from, or are more politically conscious than, the rest of Pakistan’s electorate.