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February 06, 2013

Analysts: Pakistan Youth Vote Could Tip Power Balance

by Sharon Behn

As Pakistan gears up for expected national elections in May, there are 35 million new voters on the rolls, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25.
 
For decades, the country has been ruled by two political dynasties - or by the military. Party leaders have depended on political favors and ethnic loyalties to win over entire communities that vote as a block in their favor.
 
But students from across Pakistan say the new generations could change these longstanding political alliances.
 
“It is also very important because youth are mostly non-partial, I mean impartial," explained graduate student Mehram Ali Khan Wazir, who comes from a rural area in the northwest, "they try to vote on the basis of policy not on the basis of personality, so I am very hopeful that they will bring change.”
 
Wazir says that even if this year's vote does not radically alter the balance of power in parliament, political parties are aware of the growing power and frustration of Pakistan's younger voters. As a result, he says, young voters could influence political decision making.
 
More than half of the voters eligible to cast ballots in the upcoming national elections expected to take place in May are under the age of 40.
 
Despite more Web-connected youth who have new opportunities for political engagement, Sameera Hassan, a graduate student and organizer from the eastern city of Lahore, says many young urban voters are not motivated enough to cast ballots.
 
She adds that in rural areas young voters' political independence remains uncertain in a country where family background and respect for the opinion of elders can trump personal choices.

"This is the real dilemma for Pakistan youth because they hardly go contrary to their parents," she noted, "there is no voluntary effort to vote for a new political person - they affiliate themselves and it is very rare they go contrary to their parents."
 
The ruling Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, rules through a political coalition of several parties. But there is a growing awareness among the opposition political leadership that if it could get enough young voters, it could tip the balance of power in its favor.
 
Political pollster Tariq Juanid says parties like the PTI, a relevant newcomer to the political scene led by former cricketer Imran Khan, and the opposition Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif are reaching out to the younger demographic.
 
"Despite the fact the present youth is more politicized, the present youth is more sensitized towards elections," Juanid said, "it would be really early to say the youth will actually change the whole nature of the next elections - 65 percent of that belongs to rural areas where your ethnic background is more important than anything else."
 
Such a result would disappoint students like Habib Tahir, who strongly believes those his age have so far avoided their responsibility to change years of political corruption and mismanagement.
 
Speaking on the train on his way to his university in the violence-ridden city of Karachi, Tahir says the upcoming ballot could be the beginning of change.
 
"This is an opportunity for us to get rid of the corrupt people and clean our house using our vote, and they can play a vital role in setting a direction for the future of the country in the elections, since the elections are a turning point for the democratic nations," he said.
 
So far, no single political party appears to have won the allegiances of Pakistan's youth. Analysts say despite attempts by Imran Khan's PTI and firebrand Canadian-Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul Qadri to challenge the existing political order, the ruling PPP and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League are expected to remain the main political forces in parliament.

As university student Tahir says, changing Pakistan's political dynamic will likely be gradual.