Electorate’s youth bulge

Published June 27, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

PAKISTAN’S electorate of over 124 million voters reflects the youthful demographic profile of the country, among the youngest in the world. Sixty-four per cent of the population is under 30 years. Around 47pc of the electorate is between the ages of 18 and 35. A third of total registered voters is under 30. This pronounced youth bulge among voters has transformed the electoral landscape with important implications for politics, political parties and elections.

But this has mostly been an understudied factor in recent years, save for Pildat’s ongoing work on youth and Gallup Pakistan’s 2021 report, which assesses exit polls over the years. UNDP’s Pakistan National Human Development Report of 2017 was the most comprehensive examination of the role of youth in human development, that captured the aspirations and expectations of young people. For Adil Najam, co-author of the report, its main political conclusion was that Pakistan’s political culture will be defined in future by the young, and not its elites.

Read more: 'Only 25pc youth cast votes in general elections'

Young voters are a potential game changer who can transform the country’s traditional voting patterns. Elections in coming years can be decided by young voters, who are a sizeable constituency — almost 58m in the 18-35 age group. This benefits parties that appeal to the young. PTI is ahead in this game. PML-N and PPP lag behind, even though the latter, in its earlier decades, enjoyed strong support among students. Both parties seem complacent about their ‘stable’ vote banks, which may explain their lack of outreach to the young. They need to rise above the weight of traditional politics and dial their clocks to 2022 to attract young voters.

A big unknown is whether the young would vote differently than older voters, which is presumed to be largely on the basis of traditional loyalties, personalities, dynastic politics, patronage considerations, ethnicity, biradari alignments or religious reasons. Evidence from other countries shows that voting patterns of youth are different. If they vote differently here, that could be a real game changer. Successive opinion surveys show inflation and unemployment to be young people’s top concerns. So is the quality of education, honest and responsive government and religious extremism. In a recent survey, Voice of Youth, Pildat asked members of a nationally representative ‘youth parliament’ it regularly convenes what inspired them to support a political party. Thirty-eight per cent cited a party’s past performance, 36pc party platform and 17pc charismatic party leadership.

Young voters can shape outcomes but they have to turn up at the ballot box.

This suggests that issues are more important for them than personalities. The most encouraging finding was faith in democracy of the overwhelming majority — 85pc of respondents. This, despite their mistrust and low confidence in the country’s institutions. According to the NHD report, “never has there been a generation of young people in Pakistan so invested in the future of their country, so aware that solutions to their problems will not come from above or abroad, who know that it is they who can and must be the change that must start from within”.

But here lies the paradox. For young voters to play a key if not decisive political role, their participation in elections should be significantly high. So far, turnout among younger voters has been exceedingly low. Official statistics are lacking on this. But the Gallup report, relying on exit polls conducted since 1988, finds youth turnout to be much lower than overall voter participation. It shows that usually only a quarter of young voters turned out to vote. In the past two elections, their participation was only a third compared to the average overall turnout of 52pc. This compares poorly with the turnout of female voters, which averaged 40pc in these polls, although this also affects the youth turnout number. According to Gallup, the highest turnout was among 30- to 49-year-old voters. The head of Pildat, Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, has also examined this phenomenon and refers to the low turnout of youth as ‘absentee voters’, urging changes to promote greater participation.

Among reasons deemed to contribute to the low turnout is lack of voter registration and non-possession of CNICs, cynicism that elections won’t change anything, disillusionment with political leaders, and little interest in the political process. Many young voters also doubt the fairness of elections. This is another reason that swells the ranks of the large non-voting electorate.

Although youth voter turnout is low, even a modest rise can be consequential to electoral outcomes. This is due to several factors. The first is the sizeable number of marginal and tightly fought seats in general elections in a first-past-the-post system. Well over a hundred National Assembly seats were won by a plurality, not a majority of votes in the 2018 election. Eighty-seven National Assembly seats were won by a margin of less than 1,000 votes, and 26 seats by a margin of under 2,000 votes. In 51 constituencies, the winning candidate’s margin of victory was under 6,000 votes. Most of these were in Punjab — where general elections are won or lost. With the average size of Punjab’s national constituencies around 780,000, these are fragile margins of victory. Given these margins, young voters can shape outcomes if they participate in elections in greater numbers.

Read more: Majority of youth believe next general elections will be fair

A related point is the three-way nature of electoral contests now — between PML-N, PTI and PPP in most national constituencies. In 2018, vote splitting between the two traditional parties enabled PTI candidates to win several marginal seats on narrow pluralities. With the vote dividing between three parties in many constituencies and among others elsewhere, this opens up possibilities for young voters to tip the balance.

New voters are continuously added to the electoral rolls — 18.7m voters were registered in the four years since the 2018 elections. Most, though not all, are young voters. Many may not have any prior party preference. This offers opportunities to parties to reach out and win their allegiance. But the youth vote can only be consequential if more young citizens register and turn up to cast the ballot. Some surveys do indicate their eagerness to vote. Political parties should translate this eagerness into mobilising them to vote, while the ECP should facilitate higher registration of young voters.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022

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