Can the youth vote impact Pakistan’s next election? | Arab News

This article was published in Dawn on Dec 16, 2022 at the following link

Pakistan is one of the youngest countries of the world with a median age of around 22 years.  It is the 36th youngest country among the 227 countries of the world and the sixth youngest in Asia. In South Asia, Pakistan is the second youngest country with only Afghanistan having a higher percentage of younger population. In terms of absolute number of young people, Pakistan ranks fifth in the world.  

It was just last month that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) made public the statistics of the final electoral rolls ahead of the next General Election which is scheduled latest by October 2023. It is the first time that the ECP has also uploaded a detailed age-wise distribution of registered voters on its website. Pakistan now has over 122 million registered voters of which young voters between 18 to 35 years old number around 53.8 million– constituting the largest cohort of over 44% of total registered voters. 

The number and percentage of young registered voters gives huge clout to the youth, provided they are able to effectively use this power. Sadly, the youth has not been able to use this immense power in the past simply because a large majority – around 70% – of them failed to turn up at the polling stations for voting.

The exit polls carried out by well-known pollsters, Gallup Pakistan, in the past eight elections since 1988 indicate that, on average, only 31% young (18 to 29 years old) voters turned out to vote in Pakistan. This is considerably lower than the 45% average voter turnout of all ages in the same eight elections. 

It is not that young voters in other countries are also shying away from polls. In neighbouring India, for example, the average youth voter turnout in the past five elections since 1999 has been 60%, which is just 2.6 percentage points behind the average turnout of voters of all ages which is around 62.6%. Youth voter turnout is so robust in India that it surpassed average turnout of voters of all ages in two most recent Lok Sabha elections by 2 and 3 percentage points respectively.

Two parallel streams seem to be flowing among the Pakistani youth at this time. One, the stream of frustration with the current political set-up and two, the stream of yearning to participate in political processes and struggle for change in the country.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

Despite a large number of young voters in Pakistan, their dismally low turnout has not allowed young voters to exert their influence, commensurate their number in the past. Political parties, therefore, did not take youth as serious players in the political arena. One manifestation of this lack of influence is that none of the political parties fielded young candidates in the last general election. Although voters below 35 years of age constitute 44% of total registered voters, the mainstream political parties such as PTI, PMLN and PPP fielded only 17%, 13% and 23% young candidates of age 35 or below respectively. 

This young voter turn-out scenario, however, appears to be changing as indicated by the increase in young voters turnout from 26% in 2013 to 37% in 2018 narrowing the gap between overall voter turnout and youth voter turnout from 28 percentage points in 2013 to 15 percentage points in 2018. 

Young people appear to be extremely unhappy with the policies and attitude of most political parties and are quite passionate and eager to bring in a change. They don’t see political parties focusing on the key issues relating to them such as the cost and quality of education and increasing unemployment among educated youth. They see most political parties as elitist clubs dominated by dynasties and don’t find a reasonable entry point for a political career in these parties. The lack of intra-party democracy, organizational structure, conformance to party constitution and focus on policy debate within parties are common causes of frustration among youth.

Two parallel streams seem to be flowing among the Pakistani youth at this time. One, the stream of frustration with the current political set-up and outdated practices of political parties and, two, the stream of yearning to participate in the political process and struggle for the change in the country. Whichever political party can realise the significance of the young vote and is able to catch their imagination by refurbishing its structures, rededicating itself to merit, reversing the trend of bank-rolling the politics and elections, proposing an innovative and imaginative election manifesto hitting the right notes with youth and bringing a credible and competent team with a healthy mix of professionals, women and youth as the face of the party, may sweep the next election. If none of the parties pay heed, the youth will be further disillusioned and that, God forbid, will be a dark day for Pakistan.

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