The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Can the electorate’s changing demographics, substantial addition of new voters and the shifting urban-rural balance transform the country’s voting pattern? This important question is usually brushed aside by the major parties whose supporters insist that the coming general election will largely mirror previous ones.
They argue that between them the two main parties will win much of the national vote on the basis of traditional voter alignments and a coalition will be cobbled together with the usual cast of eager regional allies. For them it is unthinkable that electoral politics might be heading in a new and unpredictable direction. That view also resonates across sections of the media reflecting cynicism about any departure from traditional voting patterns.
But this ignores changing political and demographic realities that could open the way for voter realignment and a break from politics as usual. In a previous column I identified a number of variables that suggested that today’s political landscape is different from the past and this opens possibilities of changes in voting behaviour. The interplay between these variables, one of them being a widespread yearning for change, could make local and national contests more uncertain than ever in the past.
A number of important new facts about the electorate lend more weight to this argument. The most significant is the pronounced youth bulge among registered voters. Almost half the electorate – or 47 percent are under the age of 35, according to official statistics. The electorate today is around 84 million. Of this twenty percent or 16.5 million are under the age of 25 – between 18 and 25. The voting age was lowered in 2002 to 18. Another 22.5 million or 27 percent of voters are in the 26-35 year age group.
This of course is not surprising given the youth bulge in Pakistan’s population. What is politically consequential is that these young voters are now also registered. This doesn’t mean they will automatically show up to vote at election time. But it offers an unprecedented opportunity for any party that can tap the aspirations of young voters to make rich electoral gains. Traditional, entrenched parties have been slow to recognise or leverage this factor. Nor have the two major parties evolved a strategy that specifically aims to mobilise youth. Distributing free laptop computers hardly adds up to such a strategy.
The party which has so far attracted youth in substantial numbers to its public rallies is Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. PTI is also the party that has increasingly come to symbolise hope for an emerging new generation that wants to hear an optimistic, can-do message about the future. The question is whether the PTI can galvanise young voters to cast their ballot and dent the electoral supremacy of the traditional parties, even though this dominance rests mostly on pluralities and not majorities won by their candidates.
The second significant aspect of the electorate is the number of new voters added to the voters list in the past couple of years. This requires some explanation. In 2009 the Election Commission of Pakistan sought to reconcile its electoral list with records maintained by the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) to ascertain ‘genuine’ voters. This was also in pursuance of the ECP’s earlier decision to use only computerised national identity cards (CNICs) as the basis to prepare electoral rolls.
The exercise exposed 37 million unverified voters. Of these 11 million had the older, manually produced national identity cards (NICs) but no record in NADRA’s electronically maintained database. 15 million had no NIC or CNIC while 11 million voters had “multiple entries”. (Under a 2011 amendment to the election law possession of a CNIC became mandatory to register and cast the ballot).
After making this finding public the Election Commission expunged these 37 million voters from the electoral rolls. A process of fresh verification and registration subsequently brought 36 million voters on to the computerised electoral list – who met prescribed criteria and were corroborated by Nadra.
The revised list was made public while another three million voters who had acquired computerised NICs in that period were added to the electoral rolls. This entire process yielded a body of registered voters a significant proportion of which are new according to Nadra officials. Some of course may well be from among previously unverified voters who later became eligible by acquiring CNICs or fulfilling other criterion. But according to official sources many more who had never before registered to vote were added to the electoral register. Nadra officials in fact say that a significant proportion of the electorate today are “new” voters who, for whatever reason, did not vote before or had not reached voting age.
This could impart a significant swing factor to the next election. It opens up the opportunity for all contesting parties to win the allegiance of these “new” voters. Many may not have prior loyalty to any party; some may make up their minds who to vote for on the basis of how the parties square off in the campaign.
The list of new voters continues to be a dynamic one as around 400,000 fresh CNICs are being issued every month at present. And here is another departure from the past. Even after publication of the final electoral rolls anyone who obtains a fresh CNIC will be included on the voters’ list until such time when the election schedule is announced. Parties standing to gain from new voters can continue registration drives till the formal start of the election campaign. Currently, another list of 1.5 million freshly issued CNICs are being verified through door-to-door visits by ECP nominated enumerators. With this addition the final electoral rolls will exceed 84 million.
Both these factors, new voters and the youth bulge can be consequential and game changing only if they lead to more people getting out to vote. That remains an inderminate factor. Voter turnout has steadily been declining. In the 2008 elections it was around 44 percent, with Punjab leading the other provinces by a turnout of 48.5 percent. In Sindh it was 44 percent, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 33 percent and Balochistan 31 percent.
Change in the next election therefore hinges crucially on voter turnout. This will likely benefit the PTI more than the two major parties. Indeed if the remarkably stable vote banks of the PPP and the Muslim League are to be eroded – or overwhelmed – it is higher turnout by young voters and other first time voters that can swing this.
The third important dimension of a changing electoral landscape is the urban-rural balance, which has long tilted in favour of the countryside and still does, reinforcing traditional allegiances and factors that shape or determine voter attitudes and behaviour. But the wave of urbanisation that has swept Pakistan in recent decades has begun to alter this picture. Although urban Pakistan is still underrepresented, many rural constituencies are becoming urbanised.
In the make-or-break battleground province of Punjab, this shift is most evident. Punjab’s 148 national assembly constituencies show the balance between rural and urban to be 81 rural, 25 urban but another 41 widely described as ‘mixed’ with an increasing urban complexion.
This changing rural-urban landscape advantages the PML-N more than the PPP. But it also opens the opportunity for new urban voters and especially those from the growing middle class to consider the PTI as a serious alternative especially as it seeks to convince voters that the two major parties represent the past, not the future.
The combined effect of these factors and voter disillusionment with the major parties, which are burdened by incumbency at a time of economic gloom, is to inject new, uncertain dynamics into the election scenario. This could produce greater surprises than generally presumed and offer a party that can convince voters it stands for change an unparalleled chance to make a mark.