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Insights and Analysis

Pakistan Elections: Will Youth Right the Nation’s Course?

July 18, 2018

By Farid Alam

On July 25, roughly 106 million Pakistanis will begin casting their ballots for 272 National Assembly members and 577 Provincial Assembly members to serve for the next five years. The results of past elections in Pakistan have consistently been mired in controversy. Accusations of vote-rigging from losing parties are common, as in 2013, when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party’s accusations of systematic rigging resulted in a judicial inquiry. On July 12, a majority of the upper house of parliament asked the chairman to summon the chief election commissioner and the secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to explain their alleged failure to ensure that next week’s elections will be free, fair, and transparent. Concern is growing at all levels that proactive measures by the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) at a time close to the vote could mar the election outcomes.   

The security landscape is also becoming increasingly volatile. Last week, three terrorist attacks in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan killed more than 150 people. There is a gap in Pakistani politics between politicians and the state on the one hand, and the public and its needs and aspirations on the other. Pakistan’s democratic system has repeatedly failed to deliver the fundamentals of good governance, efficient and effective justice and social services, and pro-poor economic growth. These will be the public’s key demands of the next government, and they are currently being debated in the mainstream media and on social networks.  

Pakistan’s young people, historically apathetic towards the country’s political system and its institutions, are showing an uncharacteristic optimism that their involvement and interest in this election could right the nation’s course. According to the ECP, close to 46 million voters between the ages of 18 and 35, 17.44 million of them in the 18–25 age bracket, are expected to cast their votes in this election, making them a significant force in the political landscape. Pakistan’s 2018 National Human Development Report (NHDR) found a high level of willingness and enthusiasm among the young to participate in civic life and the democratic process. The report noted that negative perceptions of politics and political leadership have not led to political disengagement among youth, who are eager to vote in the upcoming elections. According to the NHDR, this shift in youth engagement first appeared in the 2013 general elections, when young people emerged for the first time as a significant political constituency. One-fifth of the members of the National Assembly elected that year were under the age of 40.  

This youthful population is widely connected via social media. In their Global Digital Report 2018, the social-media marketing agency We Are Social counted 47.5 million internet users in Pakistan, of which 35 million are active on social media, and 44.6 million mobile internet users, of which 32 million access social networks on their mobile devices. Facebook has 35 million active monthly users in Pakistan, two-thirds of them under 24 years of age.   

These statistics did not exist in 2013. The communications landscape is changing rapidly for those who wish to reach out to voters, and new technology is quickly replacing old-style election campaigns. All major political parties have now developed social media strategies and built up their presence on Twitter and Facebook to reach out to the country’s millions of mobile and social media users, especially the young. Fully wired and eager for political engagement, the youth bulge is poised to upend politics-as-usual in Pakistan.  

But this future is not inevitable. Civic and political education are critical to effectively draw young people into the nation’s political life as informed and effective voters able to shape the country’s future. Technology and social media are essential tools for this outreach, but to avoid the flaws that have marred Pakistan’s democracy in the past, this outreach must be a two-way street: political parties reaching out to voters, especially the young, through social media; the public pushing back, raising their concerns in the same way. The Asia Foundation’s civic and political engagement programs, like the VoteFirst campaign on Facebook and Twitter, have been reaching out to the millions of youth on social media to encourage them to become informed and engaged in the election campaign, providing simple, direct access to election information that enables young people to participate in the debate over Pakistan’s most critical social, political, economic, and environmental issues.  

For Pakistan’s democracy and its democratic institutions to endure and evolve to become truly inclusive, political participation by the next generation of young people must be paired with strategies to involve them in the next stage of Pakistan’s socioeconomic development. East Asian economies such as Japan, Malaysia, and Korea achieved their “miracles” of development by investing in human capital, a point that is now widely discussed on social networks and in the mainstream media in Pakistan. At a May 2018 conference organized by the United Nations Development Programme and the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, youth delegates argued that quality education, gainful employment, and meaningful civic and political engagement should together be key priorities of the next government as it addresses Pakistan’s youth bulge.   

A new generation of citizens, using new technology, is ready to close the gap between the abstract promises of the old political elite and the unmet needs of the Pakistani public. To ignore them is to risk political irrelevance and national decline. For Pakistan’s political elite, this new reality is a situation of adapt or die. On July 25, the nation will see who is listening to this new constituency. 

Farid Alam is director of programs for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

Related locations: Pakistan
Related programs: Good Governance, Technology & Development
Related topics: Civic Spaces, Elections


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