Interview with Avais Sherani on VoteFirst and Pakistan’s Momentous Election
August 29, 2018
The general elections in Pakistan last month that propelled Imran Khan to the Prime Minister’s seat were momentous in many ways. With troubled relations abroad and fiscal difficulties at home, the electoral stakes were high. Newly liberalized voter registration laws and an enormous youth population promised a surge of first-time voters. The Asia Foundation in Pakistan, working with partner NGOs and the Pakistan Election Commission, launched the VoteFirst campaign to educate voters and help get out the vote, particularly first-time voters, women, youth, and minorities. On August 14, Pakistan Independence Day, InAsia sat down with Foundation senior program officer Avais Sherani to talk about the successful campaign.
InAsia: First of all, happy Pakistan Independence Day!
Sherani: Thank you very much. It’s the 71st anniversary.
InAsia: With Pakistan’s uneven electoral history, what significance do you see in the most recent national elections?
Sherani: The most significant thing is definitely the change that the people of Pakistan have witnessed, to a new governing party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf—in English, the Pakistan Justice Movement—the PTI. Since the late 80s, when democracy got back on track after a long dictatorship, there has been a sharing of power between two parties, taking turns, with dynastic leadership. But this time around we have a different party, with a different sort of ideology for Pakistan. It’s something really new—for some it’s exciting; for some it’s kind of scary.
InAsia: How important was the youth vote in these elections?
Sherani: It was the most important vote. Sixty-four percent of the electorate in Pakistan is under 30, and an estimated 80 percent of them voted in these elections. Let me say that again: 64 percent are under 30, and we think 80 percent of them voted. They’re a very large population, a generation that is growing up in the age of really fast communications and a globally integrated community, and they are the people who are going to be leading us into the next decade. So, it’s really important that they actually stepped up, voted, and chose how they want to be governed, what policies they want to see, and how they see the future.
InAsia: Just a few years ago, Imran Khan and the PTI could barely win one or two seats in the national parliament. Now he’s the prime minister. How closely tied is that to the youth vote?
Sherani: Imran Khan is really popular among the youth. That is really a good sign, I think. The old-school thinking was, “Oh, we really want to have a certain set of people in politics.” Now things have changed. A third force has emerged, a force that has been supported by the younger generation.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the PTI has revamped how politics is done in Pakistan. Back in 2011, 2012, Khan started this new trend of political rallies with a lot of music and a lot of political songs that focus on justice and anticorruption and more progressive views. He brought a whole different frame to political gatherings. This was more fun. Again, his main target was the youth. He faced a lot of criticism on that as well, but then all the other parties—we all noticed in this election—everyone now has their own party songs, and there’s a different way that rallies take place.
And then the youth really stepped in, and they were really right behind Imran Khan, because he appealed to them. So, let’s give credit to Imran Khan, who revitalized the nation into coming back into the political sphere and people going out to vote. Especially the youth.
InAsia: Tell me about the VoteFirst campaign. What is the significance of the name?
Sherani: Well, I’ll be dead honest with you, it just came out of my mouth. I was sitting with someone from our program development team, and I was like, “What should it be?” I said the most important thing is to tell the youth to go out and vote, first. Once you vote—you use your power, you use your right—then you get the chance to play your part in other things as well, but the most important thing is to go out and vote, first.
InAsia: What were the elements of the program?
Sherani: It was multidimensional. I really wanted to build on the earlier work we had done bringing in minorities to participate, and I really wanted support the grassroots organizations that had grown up because of that project.
The more important thing was to get to first-time voters—to provide them with the essential information they need to know, like the rules of the Election Commission—to make sure that there weren’t wasted votes. So, one, go out and use your right to vote. Two, know what the procedure is, make sure that you’re using your right correctly by voting correctly.
Another important component was the social media campaign, which was run by our colleagues. Social media in Pakistan is really, really popular. Everyone out there has a Facebook page. That’s the best way to get to the youth. It was the best way to reach a really large audience.
A very interesting part of VoteFirst was our voter-education workshops. One workshop was held in a small village in an eastern district of Balochistan. This was an area that was really conflict ridden, that was under the hold of tribal chiefs. The Army was active. There was a lot of fear among the people. No one went out to vote. So that whole village, people as old as 50 or 60 years, were there to learn how to vote, and the presenter said, “Okay, show of hands: tell me how many people have never voted?” The entire crowd of 70 or 80 people raised their hands. He thought people were not being truthful, so he paused and asked again. And he was quite shocked to see that the whole gathering would be voting for the first time.
InAsia: So, do you see these elections generally as an important moment for Pakistan going forward?
Sherani: Definitely, very important. The country is facing a crisis right now. The most important is the financial crisis, where the government needs to undertake significant reforms and measures to stabilize the economy. And foreign relations are also weak at this point in time. But we have a lot of hope as well, because it’s a new government, a new setup. The new finance minister was one of the most brilliant CEOs in the private sector of Pakistan, and he has been with the party for quite some time, so definitely there is hope.
InAsia: Is VoteFirst going to continue with some level of ongoing voter education?
Sherani: Definitely. We were really impressed with the results of this campaign—the enthusiasm and the participation of voters, and especially the first-time voters. I was personally visiting those workshops, and I saw the level of interest. So, we think this should be continuing. And we’re really, really looking forward to working along these lines with the parliamentarians, with the political parties, and to making it a continuing process.
InAsia: Where should organizations like The Asia Foundation invest their energies to help Pakistan move forward?
Sherani: I guess the most important thing—what I personally see—is a very strong need to work with state institutions to build their capacities and to streamline their processes. We’ve got some very good legislation out there. We’ve got really good institutes that have been set up, but the state is lacking capacity.
InAsia: It sounds like you’re describing a moment when civil society is really ripe to contribute, but it has been facing a logjam.
Sherani: You put it quite rightly. So, at this point in time, it’s really important for organizations like us—who have the experience, who have the exposure of working in multiple countries and seeing success stories—to coordinate with state institutions to bridge this capacity gap. It’s like, the more strengthened the state is, the more benefit the people are going to get from us, from our work.
Avais Sherani is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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