Unleashing the youth

Young Pakistani voters are hungry for change

Arshi Saleem Hashmi

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

1 August 2018

The Pakistan youth vote may have won Imran Khan the election, but now he must satisfy a unified and expectant electorate. Pakistan may be facing another term of turmoil, Arshi Saleem Hashmi writes.

Pakistan has a fragile democratic culture. The last five years of government have been tumultuous, and Imran Khan’s party is poised to preserve this tradition.

Pakistani politics has always been divided by caste, village, ethnic and religious identity politics, despite its central two-party system. For the last three decades, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have dominated Pakistani politics.

Traditional affiliation, rather than politics, has been the defining factor in elections. Even parties contesting for seats in the centre encouraged candidates to vote for their own family, or according to ethnic and caste divisions, in order to mobilise voters.

However, the last two elections (2008 and 2013) saw a third party enter the field.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has been around since 1996, but ex-cricketer Imran Khan has only recently had a shot at leading the party to victory. PTI has managed to capture young Pakistani votes in this election campaign – a latent voter body that was perfectly poised for mobilisation following the disastrous elections of 2013.

That mobilisation started following allegations of rigging in four constituencies by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the 2013 election.

More on this: What does Pakistan's future hold under Imran Khan?

The PML-N government refused to give in to the demands of Imran Khan for recounting, and protesters flooded the streets. Protests sprung up in different parts of Pakistan, before finally arriving in Islamabad. There, the PTI staged a sit-in protest that lasted 126 days.

This heralded a new trend in the politics of Pakistan. PTI have since concentrated their efforts on one agenda – to protest pervasive governmental corruption.

The protests of 2013 led to Supreme Court intervention and finally, after five years of protest and fierce speeches on TV channels and on the streets, Nawaz Sharif was convicted.

Imran Khan’s successful campaign against Nawaz Sharif further mobilised his supporters– whose majority happens to be young, under-30 Pakistanis. The imprisonment of a corrupt former Prime Minister triggered great euphoria amongst hopeful Pakistanis. There is great support for “cleaning” government of corrupt politicians, and laying the foundation for a “new Pakistan”.

Imran Khan often refers to an “Islamic Welfare State” – a term that appears baffling at first glance. The idea is based on Khan’s fascination with contemporary Scandinavian states. He seeks to promote values of social democracy, justice, equality and accountability through the establishment of a new Pakistani welfare system.

But things are not as simple as they appear.

The “new Pakistan” that Khan’s young voters look forward to will, unfortunately, be led by ‘old corrupt politicians’, some of whom smelled the coffee and jumped from Nawaz’s party to PTI.

More on this: Ending violence against women in Pakistan

Unfortunately, PTI has provided an opportunity for corrupt politicians to jump ship and avoid scrutiny over party-specific corruption. The party’s main financers have tinted careers and PTI has avoided discussion of them.

PTI projects itself as centre-right – a traditionalist yet moderate Muslim political party– but not conservative enough to woo religious voters. PTI appears to be uncertain of its stance on central national issues. Khan is apparently stumped by minority issues, female empowerment, Ahmedis (a group declared non-Muslim by the constitution), and past political negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban.

There is a dichotomy in his understanding of politics and the liberal democratic framework that exists in most democracies.

He appears to be cautious as well as opportunistic – attempting not to offend any group in the country, yet leaving plenty of space to shift his stance on many issues.

The young followers of PTI are enthusiastic, but they lack the political understanding which is required for long dedicated commitment to real political change. While there may be an emotional mobilisation of young voters, clarity of ideas and dedication to political process is lacking.

Anti-Nawaz hype seems more salient than any real sustainable issues.

The real question is, with Nawaz behind bars and PTI rising to power, what will keep young followers committed to the party?

Emotional mobilisation can easily lead to chaos and impatience. Big loud slogans look good in election campaigns, but a full term in office works differently.

When young, charged, impatient party supporters do not see immediate change, that emotional mobilisation may transform into a disillusioned, untrained, and intolerant youth bulge. Pakistan may be facing yet another five years of political instability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and are not institutional. 

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