The youth factor

Published May 21, 2012

AS the next general elections draw near, I hear increasingly about Pakistan’s growing appetite for democracy. In spite of this government’s performance, there are many, including myself, who will be happy to see a popularly elected civilian government complete its term.

The upcoming transfer of power through elections (assuming all goes well) bodes well for a future in which a more regular electoral cycle is in place. But one election does not mean that a democratic culture is here to stay. Only several general elections at regular intervals over the coming decades will indicate whether Pakistan has a strong stomach for democracy (or an incurable eating disorder). There is, however, one short-term indicator as to Pakistan’s democratic prospects: the youth vote.

According to Nadra, 47 per cent of all registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 35 (that’s 39 million people out of an 83-million-strong electoral list). Significantly, all these voters — most of them first-timers — were born during or after the Zia years and have spent roughly two-thirds of their lives under some form of military rule. Their only exposure to democracy before 2008 was the turbulent 1990s.

Whether these young voters line up at polls on election day to cast their ballot is of extreme significance. High youth voter turnout would suggest that a generation with little experience of democracy has internalised the value of the system and understood the symbolic power of their vote. After all, if those who have been raised on a staple diet of dictatorship are able to switch to democratic fare, there is hope for a democratic future for Pakistan.

Despite young voter enthusiasm for Imran Khan, we cannot take it for granted that 39 million youth have come to value the democratic system in and of itself. As recently as 2009, three national youth surveys conducted by the British Council, Centre for Civic Education and the Herald magazine found that nearly half the youth do not vote and about 40 per cent have no confidence in the utility of their vote. It is precisely these statistics that one hopes are revised during the next general elections.

A growing appetite for democracy could also be suppressed by the continuing appeal of the Pakistan Army as the country’s most functional institution. According to the three 2009 surveys, 60 per cent of the youth surveyed expressed confidence in the military while less than 10 per cent supported government institutions. More recently, in a June 2011 Pew poll of the overall Pakistani population, 79 per cent of respondents identified the military as the most respected and influential institution, while only 20 per cent polled in favour of the national government (even the police had a better showing with 26 per cent).

On election day, young voters may also demonstrate an ambivalence about democracy owing to this government’s poor showing while in power. Since 2008, the public’s disgust with the political class has soared. In 2011, YouGov-Cambridge conducted three separate studies of public opinion in urban Pakistan. Respondents ranked ‘corruption within Pakistan’ in clear first place as the greatest threat to Pakistan as a nation — no less than 94 per cent of respondents believed that corruption is widespread among government leaders. Similarly, in the June 2011 Pew poll, 79 per cent of all respondents identified ‘corrupt political leaders’ as a ‘very big problem’ for the country (bigger problems included inflation, joblessness, crime and terrorism).

Those who are optimistic about Pakistan’s democratic prospects do not dwell on these statistics and instead point to Imran Khan’s popularity as proof of the nation’s democratic appetite: a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute earlier this month showed that the PTI is currently the most popular political party in Pakistan with 31 per cent of respondent votes while the PML-N and PPP trail behind with 27 and 16 per cent of the votes, respectively.

Khan’s popularity has been widely interpreted as a firm rejection of the corruption and venality of the mainstream political parties. This interpretation fits well with a democratic culture whereby a polity is empowered with anti-incumbency and punishes those who have not governed well by voting them out of power. In the run up to the election, as the PTI absorbs more old-guard politicians with well-established reputations for corruption and venality, it will be interesting to see whether young voters become disillusioned and stay away on election day or still turn out to cast their ballot.

If, despite the many shortcomings of all our political leaders (including the Great Khan), Pakistan’s youth vote in significant numbers, we can assume that an important democratic corner has been turned. After all the political shenanigans of the past few years, Pakistani voters will not be voting for politicians, but in spite of them. And those votes will be the surest sign that the new, younger electorate is not instilling faith in lone individuals or supposed saviours, but in the democratic system itself — and nothing can make for a better democratic culture than the decoupling of dirty politics and political participation.

The young voters that this column focuses on are often described as ‘Zia’s children’ and their heightened religiosity, nationalism (bordering on jingoism) and intolerance are seen as the dictator’s most brutal legacy. Despite their ideological shift to the right, these young voters may yet embrace the idea of democracy. If they do, it bodes brilliantly for the future of Pakistan. It is only once the democratic system is resilient that its principles — such as plurality, freedom and equality — will be able to trickle down into everyday practice and policymaking.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com Twitter: @humayusuf

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