Is Imran Khan listening to young voters?
In mature democracies, election strategists give huge importance to the ever-changing demographic characteristics of the electorates to help parties and candidates shape their platforms, manifestos and set preferences right to attract voters. Pakistan is another country where voting blocs happen to be around caste, creed, tribal affiliations, and somewhat along party lines. There is hardly any credible, institutional data bank of voting behavior of different voting blocs, like the old, retired, women, college graduates, labor and ethnic groups and particularly youth in Pakistan yet. These, in my view actually play a decisive role in electoral outcomes by voting in large numbers or by staying home on polling day. The voter turnout or absence of young voters, comprising roughly 60 percent of the population has quietly affected every national election in the recent past. Lacking of political attention to the young voter by any major party or national leader may cost him or her big losses. Let me explain why this is going to be the case.
The youth of Pakistan, which had been ignored for a very long time and excluded from representation, played a decisive role in the victory of Imran Khan. The voter turnout among young people was the highest ever with an estimated 20 to 30 percent of people voting for the first time in the 2018 elections. Interviews on polling day and afterwards suggest the tilt toward Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was quite visible.
This goes to the credit of Imran Khan: he politically awakened the youth by his personal charisma, message of change and hope. In popular imagining, he cast himself as a liberator, a reformer, and a heroic figure who represented the ethos of a great society, a great country and great people. Youth, particularly of high-school and college going age, about to be eligible to register as new voters were mesmerized by the idea of tabdeeli— change. What did this ambiguous messaging mean for the youth? It kicked up a revolution of expectations, as always happens in societies suffering from multiple crises.
More surprisingly for the youth, Imran Khan has increasingly adopted a conservative political personality, often acting as a religious preacher rather than the political reformer they had in mind.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Having been left unrepresented and greatly disillusioned with dynastic political parties and their frozen-in-time leadership, they visualized a messiah in Imran Khan. There were two sides to their political activism in support of the PTI. First, they wanted to see an end to the musical-chair, turn-taking politics of PML-N and the PPP and their accountability for massive corruption. Second, they wanted the founding of a ‘new Pakistan’, fundamentally different in every aspect of governance, development, and system of justice and rule of law— a country of which young people could be very proud.
After more than three years in office, Imran khan appears to be promising more than delivering on what was supposed to be his manifesto of change. There is still time for him, but the window may not remain open as far as the young voter is concerned. The youth is politically the most volatile and impatient group among all voting blocs, and judges leaders and parties more critically than others, as it has much to lose or gain in terms of opportunities for employment and progress. In some personal interviews, I see disillusionment emerging among young voters that voted for the PTI last time for more than one reason.
First of all, what they fantasied was a ‘new Pakistan’ is actually being run as the old one, and even worse when it comes to governance, bureaucratic corruption and management of the economy. This strikes the youth living on low stipends more than other groups. The political allies that Imran Khan chose to form his government didn’t live up to the promise of ‘new,’ as many of these rump political factions have a vested interest in the kind of politics the youth hated and for that reason remained de-politicized for decades.
Youth all over the world is progressive, liberal and left leaning in its ideological orientations, and it is roughly true of young people in Pakistan as well. The change remains their ideal, as a progressive alternative to the stagnated politics of old-guard elites. Their frustration over the lack of progress is becoming more and more pronounced in their social and political conversation. More surprisingly for the youth, Imran Khan has increasingly adopted a conservative political personality, often acting as a religious preacher rather than the political reformer they had in mind. His political pandering to the rightwing religious groups will further distance some sections of the youth from his party.
The tough challenge Khan will face now is how to put young people back at the forefront of his politics. Their distaste for dynastic parties is obvious, but so is their growing impatience with Imran Khan. Bringing the young voters back in or failing do to so could determine the future political prospects for Khan in the next elections.
- Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais