Absentee young voters in Pakistan
It is common knowledge that overall voter turnout in Pakistan is traditionally quite low. At an average of 47 percent in the past 1o elections (excluding the 1977 election which is generally accepted as seriously flawed), Pakistan ranks at 153rd place among 196 countries in the Voter Turnout Trends compiled by IIDEA- a prestigious Stockholm-based think tank.
It is also well known that there is a considerable gap between the male and female voter turnouts. The female voter turnout in the 2018 general election was about 40 percent compared to 60 percent for male voter turnout and 53 percent overall (for both men & women) voter turnout. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), assisted by some International Agencies and foreign governments, had been making concerted efforts to address the gender gap both in registered voters and voter turnout with the result that at least the gender gap in registered voters has started narrowing, although the women voter turnout remains almost static at around 40 percent.
What, however, is not generally known but is quite astonishing information is that young voter (18 to 29 years’) turnout is abysmally low and significantly lower than even female voter turnout. Since the number of young voters is not separately counted, no official record of youth voter turnout is available. Exit polls however, fill the gap by providing the estimated youth voter turnout figures. Based on the Exit Polls conducted by Gallup Pakistan for every election since 1988, the estimated average youth voter turnout for the past eight elections is a little over 31 percent which is way below the overall voter turnout of 44 percent — a gap of more than 13 percentage points! This means that there were around 18 million registered young voters who did not bother to vote in the 2018 election! It is estimated that the number of absentee young voters will reach near the 23 million figure in the General Election scheduled for 2023.
Youth alienation from the electoral process in Pakistan as indicated by the estimated low youth voter turnout figures over the past eight years is dangerous and therefore, simply unacceptable.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Just to further illustrate the enormity of youth estrangement from the polls, one may also compare the youth voter turnout with that of women. Since Pakistan started recording the number of female voters separately since the past two elections (2013 and 2018), it may be useful to compare the average female and young voters’ turnout for these two elections. Average female voter turnout for women for the past two elections was around 40 percent compared to an estimated 31 percent youth voter turnout indicating that youth voter turnout is lower than even that of women by about 9 percentage points.
Average overall voter turnout for the last two elections was around 53 percent compared to 31 percent estimated youth voter turnout with an enormous gap of 22 percentage points between the two.
It is true that youth voter turnout usually lags behind the overall voter turnout in most countries. The same is the case with women voter turnout. However, youth apathy toward elections is predominantly a phenomenon prevalent in the so-called developed world such as UK and US. In India, a society much more comparable to ours, the estimated youth voter turnout has generally not lagged behind overall voter turnout by a significant margin. Estimated youth voter turnout for the past three Lok Sabha elections from 1999 to 2009 has been lower than the All-India Voter Turnout by a margin of just 3 to 6 percentage points. The estimated youth voter turnout of 68 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was even higher than the 66 percent All India Voter Turnout! This high youth voter turnout trend more or less repeated itself in the 2019 election as well.
The Indian example also indicates that low youth voter turnout should not be accepted as a norm and that it is possible to mainstream the youth voter and improve youth voter turnout especially in the context of South Asia and, more specifically, in Pakistan.
Youth alienation from the electoral process in Pakistan as indicated by the estimated low youth voter turnout figures over the past eight years is dangerous and therefore, simply unacceptable. This unfortunate trend which has continued for the past 33 years can also be interpreted as a weakening faith in the democratic process.
ECP has the prime responsibility to focus on the issue of extraordinarily low youth voter turnout and begin by verifying the extent of youth disinterest in the electoral process through their own exit polls. The government of Pakistan and the international community should also realize the gravity and urgency of the situation and support ECP in drawing a comprehensive action plan and executing it over the next few years to revive the youth’s interest in the elections.
- The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat