A motivated and mobilised young electorate will eventually decide the country’s political future
he Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) demand for fresh elections this year is unlikely to be met. If Imran Khan cannot compel the incumbent government and the concerned circles to call early elections, which is most likely, the next general elections will be held in the latter half of 2023. He has already started his campaign by holding mass rallies in various cities across the country. He has been largely successful in mobilising the youth — aged between 15 and 29 years – comprising almost 29 percent of the population. The young voters – aged between 18 and 35 – makes up 47 percent of the entire electorate in the country. Those aged between 18 and 29 are almost 29.4 percent of the registered voters. It can be said that a motivated and mobilised young electorate will decide the country’s political future. These young voters are being tipped as potential game changers.
The young voters’ behaviour is likely to differ from older voters for two reasons. On top of the celebrity factor, Khan has been attacking the traditional political culture of dynastic politics, which he claims has corrupted the fabric of the state and the society. A vibrant media has sold his message of an unrelenting campaign against “corruption, corruption and corruption” to these voters. However, it is often ignored that the youth bulge and the middle class bulge, have different values and orientations. Rather confused, the new middle class wants transparency and fairness, both in the procedures through which governments come into power and the way they govern, once in office. This is also referred to as a generational effect.
Four interesting observations deserve attention. First, the middle class put up a lukewarm resistance to the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif in 2017. Yet, it overwhelmingly responded to the message of Maryam Nawaz demanding insulation of the political process from the military’s interference and making the process fairer. Second, Khan had half-lost his political support for doing nothing to make the system less corrupt and acting as military tutelage. Yet, he has regained his support by again selling his narrative of making the country less corrupt and standing as a symbol of resistance against the military’s intervention.
Third, the structural and functional basis of the extant electoral and accountability process strategically positions several other institutions that exploit the systems to institutionalise the status quo that neither did nor would do any service to the state and society. Yet, these institutions, including the media, are at the centre of public backlash for supporting corrupt people and influencing the political process. Fourth, the extant voting trends show that, on average, Pakistani voters have no taste for religious political parties. The middle class looks towards politicians rather than other institutions. This is a good sign for Pakistan’s nascent democracy.
One way to comprehend these observations is that middle-class voters are more volatile in terms of supporting a party. So how will the generational gap unfold in the next elections?
The disenchanted youth had already switched their support to the PTI in 2018. According to the Gallup exit polls, young voters’ (18-29 years) support for the Pakistan Peopels Party (PPP) stagnated at 13 percent between the 2013 and 2018 elections. In the same period, support for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) among young voters dropped from 30.5 percent to 22 percent and support for the PTI rose from 23.5 percent in 2013 to 34 percent in 2018. On top of these voters, 18.7 million new voters will be added to the electoral list by the time elections take place in 2023. This young voters‘ bulge is accompanied by highly aggressive mobilisation efforts by the mainstream political parties. If the generational hypothesis is accepted, there is a greater likelihood that the young voters will be a decisive factor in determining the outcome of the next elections. Addressing the middle class aspirations of fairness and transparency might make the PTI a beneficiary of the generational effect.
However, it is important to note that in the 2018 elections, National Assembly seats 164, 113, and 87 had winning margins of less than 6,000, 2,000, and 1,000 votes, respectively. Given that young voters are volatile, fielding candidates that might match the younger urban voters’ aspirations of fairness and accountability might help the PMLN. Ultimately, the paradox of the contemporary times is to choose between populism and autocracy or dilute dynasties to save democracy. Pakistan is not a great democracy, even in the electoral sense. One way to save democracy is by institutionalising political parties. It is in the hands of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari to choose between building democracy by institutionalising democracy within the PMLN and the PPP, respectively, and making them representatives of the younger cohorts’ aspirations.
Mazhar Abbas has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at email@example.com. He tweets at @MazharGondal87.
Bilal Hassan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org