Sunday September 25, 2022

What happens when you ignore the young

July 20, 2022

A recent record turnout of around 50 per cent in the Punjab by-elections is proof that the people of Pakistan have full faith in democracy and the electoral process despite a history of rigging in almost every election. The proportion of youth in the population is also high and their vote can make or break any political party – and this is what happened in the Punjab by-elections held on July 17.

As a result, the PTI managed to win 15 seats; the voter turnout in this by-election also became a new record in the electoral history of Pakistan, primarily because of the youth bulge and their numbers in Pakistan. As long as Imran Khan was the prime minister and his party was in power in the centre and Punjab, it was impossible for his party to win by-elections in Punjab and the same PML-N kept defeating its candidates. Which means that the young voters of Punjab were not happy with Imran Khan's performance. So what happened that the PTI managed to get so many votes and seats in the recent by-elections?

One thing that stands out is that the voter turnout in the elections in which the PTI lost was not as large as in the July 17 election. It seems the youth bulge thought it appropriate to stay away from the election process in all the by-elections which benefited the PML-N and it continued to win those by-elections.

One of the major reasons for the PTI's victory in the recent by-elections has been rising inflation and the power crisis across Pakistan. But it was also due to the PML-N's decision to give tickets to candidates who had previously been MPAs from the PTI; the voters were angry with them as they couldn't deliver anything. The third important factor was the young supporters of Imran Khan who went out and voted in large numbers. The PML-N, like all the traditional political parties of Pakistan, has been unable to give a place to the youth in the political process. This is the situation with all the political parties of Pakistan, where the middle-class youth is not given space – and even if they are given space, then they give it to a certain political family and these young people are far from being familiar with the political affairs and problems faced by the middle class.

In such a situation, the youth of Pakistan are looking to the PTI despite the party’s poor performance and financial scandals. They consider Imran Khan to be a better option than other political parties despite all the accusations against him. What is the reason for this? In 40 years, Pakistan has not gone into debt as much as it did during Imran Khan's tenure. There is no comparison to the decline in Pakistan's economy during Imran Khan's tenure. Since the PTI was kicked out of the federal government there has been a full campaign against the PTI and their financial scandals. Despite all this, why is the young generation ready to accept Imran Khan's narrative? One of the reasons is that the middle class has disappeared in other traditional political parties of Pakistan. And the youth see Imran Khan as the solution to their class problems and as someone who represents their class.

The PML-N now has no option but to stay in government for the next few months; it will try to bring down inflation and make whatever economic expansion and stability possible, which is completely impossible given the current international happenings and Pakistan’s economy. The PML-N came to the government with the same planning but the situation turned out to be worse than its expectations. The Russia-Ukraine crisis destroyed all of its plans and possibilities.

On the other hand, there is the reactionary populist narrative of Imran Khan regaining the support and sympathy of the middle class after being ousted from power, which was made more popular by the ever-increasing inflation, power crisis and petrol prices under the new government. This resulted in these election results in which the PML-N lost Punjab. However, the general strategy of the PML-N will still be the same as before: to remain in power and consolidate its position until the general elections.

Meanwhile, the appointment of the army chief in November will be an important step. Until then, they will want to remain in power at all costs. The PTI’s victory has strengthened the party’s position and Imran Khan will prove to be more powerful than before. And he will give a tougher time to the government with this political victory which will definitely result in more political instability.

This instability will continue to adversely affect the economy of Pakistan which may further deteriorate the PML-N's political position. The PML-N may also have a plan to bring Nawaz Sharif into the field by improving the economic conditions as much as possible by next year.

Within the PML-N camp there was some anticipation of the implications of removing Imran Khan from power and making the government in Islamabad but they had no option but to remove Imran Khan from power before November. Otherwise, things could have been worse for them. They may still feel happy that the fear of November is over, and they will regain what they have lost recently. But on the ground things are very different, and if Imran Khan keeps his hope alive in the youth bulge of Pakistan, then in the next general elections the voter turnout may cross 70 per cent. Unfortunately, the PML-N has failed to give space to those who matter in politics: the middle-class and the youth bulge.

And this is the only reason the PML-N faces a tough time in the future because even if inflation is brought under control, the youth of Pakistan still stand disgusted with the traditional political parties. It seems impossible to defeat the PTI without bringing middle-class women and youth into the political system.

Unless Pakistan's political parties solidify political traditions within themselves and give a chance to the middle class, neither can anti-political intervention be limited nor the PTI be defeated.

The writer tweets @ZameerAMalik