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Pakistan's youth election: Anyone listening?

The rapid rise over the past two years of former cricket star Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party has shifted the attention of other mainstream politicians towards the youths in Pakistan.

india Updated: May 10, 2013 11:19 IST
Pakistani-workers-prepare-to-transpart-ballot-boxes-to-polling-stations-for-the-upcoming-parliamentary-elections-in-Quetta-AFP-photo
Pakistani-workers-prepare-to-transpart-ballot-boxes-to-polling-stations-for-the-upcoming-parliamentary-elections-in-Quetta-AFP-photo

In a bustling market in a sombre district of Islamabad, Raja Mehran, along with his friends, prepares for a door-to-door campaign for Pakistan's general election on Saturday.

The wiry 22-year-old is one of an estimated 25 million voters under 30 years of age who are expected to play a decisive role in the poll, marking the first democratic handover of power after a civilian government has served a full term in Pakistan.

The rapid rise over the past two years of former cricket star Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party has shifted the attention of other mainstream politicians towards the youths here.

The PTI has preached a gospel of change by pledging to break the old structures of politics, giving 35% of its party tickets to people under 35 years of age and promising young people the chance to build a 'new Pakistan'.

In a country where entry into politics traditionally depends on family ties and patronage, the appeal of this message is obvious. Student activist Mehran has heard it and is a believer.

"This is the only party which is giving tickets to youths, which actually makes them representatives of this nation," he said.

"If I work hard for this party and for this country, I can definitely become the prime minister of Pakistan, or any other boy like me can be the prime minister of this country," he added.

It is uncertain how far the PTI's message will penetrate beyond the educated urban centres of Punjab, the country's richest province, or even whether Imran Khan can translate his huge popularity into seats in the parliament.

Some youngsters are unconvinced, saying that while Khan is charismatic, he lacks the experience of Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister who leads the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and is tipped to emerge on top.

"I support PML-N because they have a leadership quality," Adnan Latif, 19, a student in Quetta, said.

"Imran Khan is a nice person but he doesn't have an idea about the difficult circumstances we have here in Pakistan, so I don't understand why you would handover these responsibilities to him," he added.

Regardless of the outcome, columnist and political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi said the PTI had shifted the political discourse, forcing more of a focus on the young people.

"It's already made a difference. The rhetoric of every single party is according to the idea that the majority of Pakistanis are below 25 years of age," he said.

"Politicians need to find a way to engage with, excite and sustain interest in these parties among the youth," he added.

Khan came into the political limelight with a huge rally in Lahore in 2011.

Since then the PML-N, which controls Lahore, has given scholarships and free laptops to students and built a metro-bus public transport system in the city.

Newspaper campaign adverts by the Pakistan People's Party - which led the outgoing ruling coalition - this week have compared the age of Nawaz, 63, and Imran, 60, with that of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the party's 24-year-old chairman.

"Only young leadership can bring a revolution. Only a leader who truly personifies and understands the spirit and aspirations of the new generation can shape a new future," the PPP advert says.

But analysts warn that none of the major parties offers realistic policies to take advantage of Pakistan's rapidly growing young population and the country could be heading for a demographic disaster.

A British Council report last month cautioned that not enough was being done to train the young in the skills needed to make Pakistan competitive.

"Nor have young people been systematically engaged as active citizens and future leaders, despite sporadic efforts to bring a new generation to the forefront of political and economic life," the report said.

It also found deep pessimism among voters aged 18 to 29. An overwhelming 96% of those surveyed said the country was heading in the wrong direction and just 29% chose democracy as the best system.

Thirty-eight percent favoured sharia law, saying it was the best for giving rights and promoting tolerance, even if none of those surveyed had direct experience of living under a non-democratic system of Islamic government.

"Our democracy is not in accordance with Islam. Our democracy will be in accordance with Islam when Islam will be imposed and that's why we want sharia imposed," said Waseem Ikram, 24, who works in an insurancecompany.

But he is not voting for an Islamist party, believing that they are too weak and that the PML-N is the best choice to tackle the country's problems.