Changing political climate

Published December 28, 2023
The writer is an Islamabad-based climate change and sustainable development expert who attended COP28.
The writer is an Islamabad-based climate change and sustainable development expert who attended COP28.

PERHAPS the most important takeaway from the climate summit in the UAE was the engagement of young boys and girls from almost a dozen youth groups representing Pakistan’s different regions. Each group focused on specific concerns of interest to them in their respective areas. They engaged with each other, their international counterparts, and with the Pakistani Pavilion, arguing passionately about their views on how to make Pakistan a climate-resilient, prosperous, and socially cohesive country.

They were the finest young minds reflecting Pakistan’s promised energy and vibrancy. They represented 18 per cent or about 22 million new voters that have been added to the electoral rolls since the 2018 elections. It is estimated that voters from the ages 18 to 35 years will constitute 45pc of the electoral college on polling day in February. Yet, they were mostly political orphans as none of the mainstream political parties have shown any serious interest to listen to them or to weave their ambitions and aspirations into party platforms and manifestos.

Ignoring this demographic profile will be perilous for any political party, indeed for democracy in Pakistan. This will weaken any government’s mandate and legitimacy. In 2018, for example, more than 100 National Assembly members from a total of 266 directly elected seats, were won by a plurality — that is, not the majority of registered votes. Further, an unbelievable 86 NA seats were won or lost by a narrow margin of less than 1,000 votes, and another 26 seats by a difference of under 2,000 votes. In 51 constituencies, mostly in the political battleground of Punjab, the winning candidate’s margin of victory was under 6,000 votes in constituencies that mostly comprised some 900,000 voters. These are indeed “fragile margins of victory” as Maleeha Lodhi labelled them in this space a few weeks ago.

Given these narrow margins, young voters can tip the outcome if they participate in the election in significant numbers. Increased youth participation can ensure that more than 51pc votes (the last election’s threshold) are cast. Ignoring the youth can at best give a fractured victory, denying any party a clear majority. Instead, the larger political parties have been shepherding electables to their barn of candidates. Political parties can overcome this predicament and strengthen democracy in the country simply by wooing an additional 10pc youthful voters by addressing their concerns.

Most new voters have seen the creeping climatic changes that have adversely affected their lives.

Most of the 22m new voters have seen creeping climatic changes that have adversely affected the quality of their lives and narrowed job markets as well as livelihood options. They have witnessed Pakistan’s GDP shrinking by as much as 4pc owing to climate-triggered disasters. They breathe toxic air and they know this is due to poor environmental governance. They drink polluted water and eat contaminated foods and are aware that this stems from the country’s degraded natural resource base. They know that presently Pakistan is spending more on maladaptation, rather than adaptation, and that this factor adds to societal vulnerabilities. They have seen how the economic growth rate has dwindled, service delivery has floundered, and how inclusion, equity and justice have become even more elusive because of the recurrent costs of climate change.

The political discourse is fast becoming irrelevant for the youth as it alienates them from mainstream politics. Most parties have traditionally dealt with climate issues superficially and with platitudes.

Many mainstream political parties have a misplaced and cynical view that the electorate in Pakistan is uneducated, and therefore, people do not vote for party manifestos. They have forgotten that at least twice in our political history, manifestos captured the voters’ pulse and swept the country with winds of change. The first time was in 1969 when during Ayub Khan’s period of growing inequalities, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto captured the common man’s imagination with his slogan of equity — ‘roti, kapra aur makan’. The second time was during the last elections when Imran Khan harnessed the sentiments of young people with slogans of tabdeeli, or change, against the manipulated but unimaginative game of musical chairs that had been ongoing since the 1990s, between the PPP and PML-N.

The aging leadership of the mainstream political parties has forgotten that manifestos galvanise public opinion and create a momentum of support for them or their opponents. The manifestos represent the party leadership’s vision and clarity of purpose, supported by programmes for implementation. They draw ideological lines and present the rationale for their priorities. The second and third echelons of leadership, often siblings of senior leaders, have not enjoyed political space to develop their narratives for climate-smart demographic dividends, let alone harnessing it for their respective parties’ advantage.

Instead of engaging the youth and harnessing their energy, most political parties are still struggling to recycle their old manifestos. The PPP is trying to find refuge in its 50-year-old slogan of roti, kapra and makan. The PML-N is developing long lists of projects they delivered as a substitute for a cohesive vision for the future. The PTI, in the absence of a convincing delivery record, is rallying under the umbrella of a missing level playing field. If the 2018 manifestos are any indication, the parties have failed to recognise that climate change is posing an existential threat to the country.

Most political parties have not rooted their programmes in internal bottom-up processes. Unsurprisingly, climate considerations are typically not embedded in each chapter of their manifestos, nor is the role of youth visible in delivery. Many political parties are continuing with the decades-old practice of having a stand-alone section on environment that leaves climate change hanging in isolation without cross-referencing with other planks of the manifesto. This approach is least helpful in integrating resilience in sectoral responses.

Political parties can still exercise leadership by showing an integrated approach to attract and inform private and public-sector investments at the provincial and federal levels. It is expected that the political parties will need to also show how they will fund their programmes, given that the fiscal space has diminished. The domestic and international climate finance landscape has changed profoundly, with funds mostly unavailable to fulfil tall promises. The political parties have a chance to show in their manifestos how they will harness youthful energy to spearhead the country’s drive for climate resilience, prosperity and social cohesion.

The writer is an Islamabad-based climate change and sustainable development expert who attended COP28.

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2023

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