The rise of the youth has already altered the Pakistani political and economic landscape. This happened in the elections of May 11, 2013. There was a palpable shift in votes from the PPP to the PML-N, in the more advanced and modernising tehsils, in Punjab. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is the other province in which the voters switched their loyalty. In fact, the swing in this province was even more pronounced than in Punjab. The PTI became the new favourite.
Since political loyalties are more enduring among older people, it is safe to assume that it was the youth that moved from one party to the other. They rejected one party and favoured the other because they were not happy with what the previous government had delivered during its five-year rule. This was the tsunami Imran Khan had promised but its main beneficiaries were Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif and their PML-N associates. To understand its dynamics we should look at both Pakistan’s demographic and economic situations.
Pakistan, today, has the youngest population of all the large countries in the world. The population’s median age is only 22 years. The youth bulge is made up of highly restive people concentrated in the city’s large cities. They are restless and they have found the means to get organised, to use the street and the public square to raise their voices and be heard. This was the dynamics that produced the Arab Spring of 2011, that resulted in the demise of the old political orders in many countries, in that part of the world. But that was not the only feature of this movement led by the youth. The other was their political orientation. What the Arab Spring of 2011, the rise of the Turkish youth in the early summer of 2013 and the return of the Egyptian youth to the streets, in July 2013, showed, is the absence of an attachment to any particular political party. The fact that the youth are politically footloose has relevance for the situation in Pakistan.
What the PML-N and PTI leaderships must understand is that the May 2013 swings in their favour do not spell permanent moves. The youth have come to their side with the hope that the two parties will work hard to meet their expectations and aspirations. The PPP’s virtual demise in urban Pakistan was due to the party’s almost total indifference towards people’s needs. If the PML-N and PTI are not able to meet people’s felt needs, there will be equally strong moves away from them, in 2018. The youth will not be attracted towards extremism and the groups that use violence as the preferred form of expression. Violence will not breed violence and in that fact the new rulers have an opportunity.
Do the youth want quick results, which are beyond the capacity of the government that is starved of resources and the poor organisation of the state that is unable to deliver? In this context, the rulers must understand that there are differences between expectations, efforts and results. The youth have many expectations. They want to see that a serious effort is being made by those who govern to meet these expectations. They will wait for results but not for long. They will read into the initial efforts the new leaders make and judge in which direction they are taking the country. Perception, in other words, will be a good part of how the youth will view the intentions of those who hold the reins of power.
Emboldened, the youth will continue to push into the political arena. They have many aspirations which they would like to see satisfied. They will also keep a close watch on the leadership groups they have placed in positions of power. Some of the youth could become political workers but most will exert influence from the outside. By not becoming part of the formal political structure they will continue to remain active in different ways. They will use the street and the public square to have their presence felt.
How should the political establishment fashion its policies and develop the lines of communication so that the youth remain engaged with it and not turn against it? Three things are needed. First, programmes and policies will have to be put in place to satisfy the most urgent concerns of the youth. They want good governance and good jobs. There is a role for the state in both areas. The state needs to act at all levels; at the federal, provincial and local levels. Nothing frustrates those who want services from the state as when it appears that these services are available only to those who have the means to pay for them. Second, the ruling establishment must make it known to the youth that it has received their message, understood it and is acting on it. Third, the youth want Pakistan to gain the respect of the international community. They are concerned that the country is now viewed by the world outside as an embarrassment. The new rulers must work hard to obtain a place for Pakistan in the evolving global political order.
The youth is looking for a well-articulated strategy for the future. This must not come out in bits and pieces but in the form of a comprehensive statement that spells out the government’s objectives and how they will be achieved.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2013.