Participation & Governance

Democracy over violence, terrorism and intimidation: Pakistani youth’s deciding vote

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“Pakistan is a young and resilient nation. Facing terror, extremism and a faltering economy, the people are despondent about the overall situation that their country is facing.” Young people were centre stage in the first civilian-to-civilian transition of power in Pakistan. With over 25 million young people eligible to vote - many of them for the first time - this analysis shows the electoral winners and losers and poses some tough questions.

On May 11th 2013, more people lined up at polling booths than in any of the previous elections. There were a number of factors that pushed people towards the ballot boxes. Pakistanis, in general, have started to understand the significance of voting. Small scale campaigns and those on the media urged the masses to get their votes registered and play their part in ensuring the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in the country. It was for the first time in Pakistan that the ‘right to vote’ was viewed as a ‘social obligation’ with all parties, including the rightists like Maulana Sami-ul-Haq (a conservative cleric who runs a religious seminary that trained many Afghan and Pakistani Taliban) convincing people to cast their vote. The same cleric referred to voting as a ‘religious obligation.’

In Pakistan, there are three mainstream political parties. They are:

    • Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP)
    • Pakistan Muslims League-Nawaz (PML-N) - Nawaz Sharif
    • Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) - Imran Khan

The ‘youth factor’ can’t be ignored and stands out for the simple reason that never before did the country’s younger population take such a keen interest in the political set up that governed it. With large numbers of unemployed youth due to menaces like corruption and nepotism, the general election was seen as a possible turning point in the political sphere of Pakistan.

Imran Khan addresses a rally in October 2011


The younger generation seemed more enthusiastic in the election saga. After the grand rally of Imran Khan in October 2011, the Pakistani youth had mobilised to a great extent. It was being envisioned by some political analysts and media commentators that the young population might play a decisive role in the 2013 general election.

“…Pakistan’s bulging youth population could be influential in the upcoming election. More than 30 per cent of registered voters, or more than 25 million, are between the ages of 18 and 29, and many will be voting for the first time, the report said. Around 60 per cent of young people plan to vote, while another 10 per cent said they could still be persuaded to turn out.”

-Dawn (April 4, 2013) [1]

“The addition of nearly 40 million new voters in theelectoralroll, mainly comprising the youth, may prove to be a decisive factor…”

- The News (April 5, 2013) [2]

Most people, rather unfoundedly in retrospect, assumed that a substantial number of young people would stand behind the cricketer-turned-politician and PTI chief, Imran Khan.

“Mr. Khan, 60, who retains his youthful swagger and athletic physique, is particularly popular with young Pakistanis who form the core of his support and make up approximately 40 percent of the country’s registered voters. However, it was not clear how much of this adulation — which borders on the cultlike — would translate into electoral success.”

- The New York Times [3]

He was equated to a ‘change maker’ who would prove to be a breath of fresh air in the political conundrum of Pakistan. After a huge rally in October 2011 in support of Khan, youth became an electoral target for all parties, particularly the PML-N who used their places in regional governments to introduce newinitiativessuch as a “laptop scheme, solar lights and foreign tours” (The News).

Post election

Undoubtedly and surprisingly the overwhelming participation of voters in the elections turned the entire electoral process into a moment of celebration for a country that was governed by dictators (time and again) for 30 years since its independence in 1947. The young, old and the middle-aged, all waited under the scorching sun to drop their votes into the ballot boxes. Social media came into play and everyone proudly updated their Facebook status after casting with photographs of stained thumbs covering news feeds all day.

The results made it plain and clear that Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had won the most number of seats in the National Assembly. Nawaf Sharif became Prime Minister as head of the majority party, while Imran Khan joined the opposition benches.

The youth vote

It is interesting to note that majority of the youth also voted for the winning party, and not Imran Khan as predicted. According to a Gallup Pakistan survey which on May 11th 2013, among the new voters who took part in the general elections this time, 37% voted in favour of Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) whereas 26% of them voted for PTI[4].

PK election results
Demographic share of the vote across the three major parties

Though PTI’s support was indeed highest amongst youth, the results and voting behaviour came as a surprise for many who believed that the majority of the youth were blindly following Imran Khan.

“The mistake the PTI leadership made was that of a foolish army: it believed its own propaganda. On television, Khan advanced the complacent view that PTI would be swept to power by a wave of new young voters. No supportive data was furnished. Neither the media, nor Khan’s team, scrutinized the claim of a monolithic youth vote. In reality, young voters were divided.”

- Dawn (May 28, 2013)

After the election, the rational conclusion that could be drawn was that the young vote bank in Pakistan was as divided as the entire country was. PML-N remained dominant in Punjab, PTI swept in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK), Sindh remains with PPPP and Balochistan will be ruled by PML-N with the support if its coalition partners. Youth’s inclination towards Imran Khan was over-stated and most of the urban elite favoured his party. Moreover, PML-N also resisted the influence of PTI on the young voters by launching timely e-youth initiatives, which included distribution of laptops to bright students of public sector universities. It must not be forgotten that majority of the Pakistani youth dwells in public sector universities and only a fraction can afford to pursue degrees privately.

A democratic future?

Though much of the debate has focused on where youth political support lies, a larger and more complex issue must be considered. A survey published by the British Council Pakistan [5]before the elections in early 2013 revealed that only 29% of youth even see democracy as the best system of government in Pakistan. This is trumped by 38% who view it as an unacceptable model of governance, with many of those supportingIslamic Shariah law.

Young people’s role in the 2013 election was historic and proved the electoral strength of Pakistan’s increasingly bulging youth demographic and the triumph of democracy over violence, terrorism andintimidation. At the next election, youth will continue to be an electoral battleground and young Pakistanis must be ready for such an opportunity.

But how will young people use their power to ensure the issues they care about are matched with decent policy and action? And how will they mobilise and organise themselves into an effective political force?

References :

  1. Poll: Pakistani youth disenchanted with democracy(AP), Dawn
  2. Young voters tilt towards PTI: survey
  3. Pakistani cricket star tries again to turn adulation into political support, Masood Salman, New York Times
  4. 37% youth voted for PML-N, 26% opted PTI,Gallup Pakistan Survey
  5. The Next Generation Report, British Council,Report was based on four commissioned studies, an online consultation and 5,271 in person interviews with people aged 18 to 29 around Pakistan, with a stated margin of error of less than 1.5 percent.

This article was edited by Alex Farrow.

Featured Image Credit: Child Legal Rights Center