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Enhancing Youth’s Political Participation, Materializing the dream of a developed Pakistan

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Youth, which indubitably is a distinction of developing world and a big privation of the developed one, is denied due participation in decision-making processes in both worlds. The quest of 24% of world’s population between 15 and 29 years of age for getting its right of participation in political arena as voters and as candidates is still on. But, till today all their endeavours have ended up in smoke as only 1.9% of parliamentarians all over the world are below 30 years of age. Whereas the data on voting trends, which is an indicator for youth’s contribution in political process, suggests that younger voters are less inclined to voting than their older counterparts. Researches also establish that if a person had cast vote in first election after being registered as a voter, there is all likelihood that he will continue to do so all through his life. Another disturbing fact is that young people have least role to play in the hierarchy of political parties.

Given all this, the prevailing state of affairs raises questions on the role of media in democratic societies as to how and what role they (both mass and social) are playing to educate youth on aspects like getting registered as a voter, use of right to vote, and, as a political worker, convincing others to get registered and then actually vote in elections and to contest elections. In addition to this, how effective is media’s role in prodding political parties, civil society and election commissions to work in this realm. In order to elaborate the importance of youth’s active participation in the political process, finding answers to both these questions is inevitable.

When defining youth, basically two parameters are being used nowadays. First, is adopted by the United Nations and it defines persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years as ‘youth’ while second is the Commonwealth standard which sets it to 15-29 years. Given any of these two age brackets, world’s youth population is 1.18 billion (16.1%) and 1.78 billion (24.4%), respectively, at present (2016). With presence in such multitudes all across the world, this energetic segment of population has all the potential to change the whole landscape of politics and power structure but still, according to United Nations Development Program (UNDP), youth’s role in political processes and institutions is insignificant as compared to older people and they do not have their due representation in parliament, political parties, elections and institutions of public administration. World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement refers to World Values Survey 2010-14 and says that only 4.1% of youth (18-29 years) are active members of political parties. The principal reason behind it is a cosmetic nature of relationship between the youth and political enterprises in most countries. If, on the one hand, young men and women aren’t ready to trust political parties, the political leaders, on the other, lament a lack of seriousness in them. This gulf can be bridged if young people try to improve their capabilities and inclination toward politics while political enterprises also accommodate them in their folds. Any impediments to achieving this goal must be got rid of.

The level of distrust which pervades in both camps is manifested in the fact that, at present, nearly 30% of the lower houses of parliament across the globe do not have any member who ages below 30 years — in upper houses of parliament this ratio is 80%. Inter-Parliamentary Union’s report entitled “Youth Participation in National Parliaments” further elaborates this in form of a ranking with regard to number of below-30 parliamentarians. Sweden is at the top of this ranking in single and lower houses of parliament category with 12.3% MPs below 30 years of age, followed by Ecuador with 10.9%. Finland and Norway are placed at third and fourth positions, respectively. France with a ratio of only 0.2% is at the 87th position. Then, 39 countries, including the United States, are ranked at 88th place where no MP falls in this age bracket. Moreover, on this ranking for the upper houses of parliament, Bhutan is at the top with 9.1% of the house consisting of people below the age of 30 years. Kenya (5.9%) is at the second spot. In this list also, there are 35 countries where no MP is aged below 30 years.

This discriminatory attitude toward youth permeates in parliamentary affairs as well because less than 25% of presidencies of parliamentary committees on youth affairs across the world are held by young MPs and most committees dealing with youth affairs are chaired by men aged over 40. Although many parliaments have committees dealing with youth affairs, nearly all of them deal with other issues also.

The persisting distrust on their skills and capabilities and concerned authorities’ abysmal lack of interest in ensuring their participation in decision-making are the key factors which alienate young men and women from the electoral processes. A study conducted by ‘International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’ also corroborates this fact. It says that “voter turnout across the globe rose steadily between 1945 and 1990, increasing from 61% in the 1940s to 68% in the 1980s. But since 1990 the average has decreased to 64%.” All this happened only due to a decline in youth’s interest in politics because as per the World Values Survey (2010-14) only 43.6 percent of youth (15-29 years) use their right to vote whereas in a UN survey (August 2012), respondents from 186 countries highlighted that the main challenges for youth were limited opportunities for effective participation in decision-making processes.

With an aim to enhance youth’s participation in political processes, a number of countries have reduced the minimum voting age. In almost 90% countries, the voting age is 18 years while that for contesting parliamentary elections varies from country to country — ranging between 18 and 25 years — while in one-third of countries, eligibility to run for national parliament starts at 25 years or higher. But, facts and figures suggest that the ratio of below-30 people in a population is inversely proportional to their number in the parliament. UNDP’s ‘Enhancing Youth Political Participation throughout the Electoral Cycle’ recommends that parliaments align the minimum voting age with the minimum age of eligibility to run for office in order to ensure greater participation by youth in parliaments. And, for this a youth-friendly legal framework is very crucial. Youth and women’s quotas should also be introduced in electoral laws.

The participation of youth in governmental, political and decision-making processes is contingent on social, economic and cultural fabric of a country. If we analyse the state of affairs in Pakistan, we find that Pakistan hosts the fifth largest youth population in the world which, as per the US Census Bureau’s International database, reaches 40.30 million for 15-24 age bracket (UN standard) while that for 15-29 years (Commonwealth standard) is 60.18 million. Between these two standards, Pakistan’s National Youth Policy has adopted the latter one i.e. 15-29 years. However, whatever the age group may be, Pakistan has abundant human resource capital in form of its youth and the country has the distinction that as per UN standard, Pakistanis are the seventeenth largest (21.3%) and on that of Commonwealth, the twelfth (30.7%) youthful nation in the world. Moreover, 13.3% of South Asia’s youth population for 15-24 years and 13.29 of 15-29 years age groups comprises Pakistani youth.

This changing demographic profile requires prioritizing the solving of youth’s problems and calls for taking immediate, radical steps to fully exploit their talents, abilities and skills. However, of late, benefitting from this invaluable asset was a victim of neglect but as soon as the minimum suffrage was fixed at 18 years, the youth started getting increased importance in country’s political structure. All parties started envisaging policies and measures for the development of the youth in their manifestos. Governments too started taking more and more steps for this huge chunk of country’s population. Pakistan’s National Youth Policy, which was launched in December 2008, as well as National Internship Programme, Skills Development Programme, Laptop Scheme, Youth Festivals at provincial level, and the Prime Minister’s Youth Program, mark the beginning of the journey to be undertaken for youth development. Though belatedly, it is encouraging that the political parties have now realized that it is the young voters who shall play a significant role in sending them to the corridors of power. Voters lists used in general elections 2013 speak volumes about this fact.

As per these electoral rolls, 17.5 million registered voters aged between of 18 and 25 years which means that 20.35% of Pakistani voters, who voted in any election for the very first time, belonged to this group. And, if we assume the maximum age of 29 years — set by the Commonwealth — at 30 years, then votes of Pakistani youth between 18 and 30 years at the time of 2013 general elections, 35% of registered voters i.e. 30 million people, comprised of youth.

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According to NADRA Electoral Rolls Booklet 2012, Punjab was the centre of attention in 2013 elections as 56% of Pakistan’s total registered young voters belonged to this province. Sindh was at second place with 22% and was followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 15%, Balochistan with 4%, FATA with 2%, and Islamabad with 1%.
The electoral rolls for 2013 elections contained 55% registered voters of age 18-25 years while for 18-30 years, the ratio was 62%. This created a great stir in political arena and propelled the voter turnout to 55%  — equal to that of 1970 elections. Since 1970, the turnout has witnessed a steep fall and by the 1988 elections, it dropped to a mere 35.2%. However, when, in 2002, the voting age was reduced to 18 years, turnout increased to reach 41.8%. This rise sustained and touched the mark of 44% in 2008 elections. All this has been possible only due to youth’s participation. Just imagine, if youth’s 100% registration in electoral rolls is ensured, then would any political force get to the power corridors without factoring in the country’s youth? In order to ensure 100% registration of youth in voting lists, and persuade them to cast their vote, the Election Commission of Pakistan, political parties, civil society and media would have to come forward and play their role relentlessly. Although registration of voters in electoral rolls is a continual process – the process is halted only a couple of months before the new elections – yet none of the stakeholders is paying due attention toward this aspect. Now, elections are again due in 2018 and it is expected that by then, Pakistan’s youth population (18-30 years) would reach 50 million; 12.3% more than that in 2012. In order to persuade new voters for registration along with those who could not get their names onto the electoral lists previously, the collaborative role of ECP, civil society and media in a countrywide campaign is highly crucial. Media should not only take the lead by launching such a campaign in discharge of its social responsibility as well as public broadcasting, but will also have to rope in political parties, the ECP and civil society. The ECP and civil society should also start making an apt use of mass media, especially social media, in this regard.

Here, it is important to note that in 2013 elections, a total of 46,217,428 votes were polled and it is expected that in the upcoming general elections (2018), the number of only the youth voters will cross the 50 million mark, which far exceeds the total votes polled in 2013. Only that political party will be successful in coming to power which would be able to benefit from this huge chunk of population.

Ensuring youth’s participation both as a voter and as a candidate is indispensable to bringing more effective and visionary leadership at the top. Political parties do take a keen interest in getting youth’s votes but when it comes to bringing them into parliament, they just don’t have any cohesive, long-term policies. And, the term ‘young leader’ has been confined only to a mere slogan in actuality. Although parties’ manifestos vouch for awarding tickets to young candidates, yet the reality is starkly different and any such decision is considered to be a risky one; and no party would like to take any such risk in elections. Such a demeanour of Pakistani politicians is a big reason why Pakistani youth avoids taking part in country’s politics

A survey carried out by Center for Civic Education, with young men and women of age 18-30 years, further corroborates the assertion because 82% of the respondents admitted that they do not take active part in politics. Moreover, no authentic information on ratio of youth in Pakistan’s national parliament is available. Although a setup named Young Parliamentarians Forum is there in the National Assembly, the details of its members who were below 40 years of age on 11th of May 2013 are also not available because one cannot download the file containing the profiles of MPs from National Assembly’s website. Interestingly mentioning a member’s date of birth on his/her profile has not been considered important. Similar is the case with the Senate of Pakistan, the upper house of parliament. Moreover, if any NGO has worked on this issue then it too is not accessible. Then, how could one know that what actually is the proportion of youth in both houses of country’s parliament?

As of now, the best available forum for youth to take part in decision-making and then entering into National Assembly level politics is the local governments. However, like national and provincial assemblies, for local governments too, the minimum age to be elected as a member has been set at 25 years. These nurseries of country’s politics are also bereft with and bemoan a lack of devolution of powers.

The literature produced between 1947 and 2000 on youth’s role in political arena has focused solely on student politics and has altogether ignored those who belonged to remote areas of the country — most of it was on only influential figures.

Jinnah Institute’s report ‘Apolitical or Depoliticised? Pakistan’s Youth and Politics: A Historical Analysis of Youth Participation in Pakistan Politics’ says that “by the 21 century, the direct involvement of students in local and national politics was greatly reduced, as student politics had both become extremely violent and illegal.”

Another expression of politics is protests and agitation which provide the youth a platform to show their dissatisfaction over political establishment of the country. Although public protests are not a new phenomenon, yet with the advent of social media and other ways of mass communication youths are being more and more attracted to it. According to Digital Development Commission, by 2015, only 43% population of the world (nearly 3.2 billion people) has presence on the internet. This figure drops to only 35% in case of developing countries. Nevertheless, the availability of ever-growing numbers of online and social media outlets and other web-based tools has played a huge role in bolstering young people’s activism and participation.

UN’s ‘World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement’ also points to another very important factor when it says that “failing to purposefully and meaningfully include youth in the building of new political processes and institutions can lead to increased frustration and resentment among young political activists, destabilizing democratization and accelerating conflict dynamics. … When young people feel that their grievances and frustrations are being ignored or trivialized and are not given adequate consideration in governance and decision-making, they may in some cases resort to violent and extremist activities.”

In spite of their overriding importance as political and human capital, Pakistani youth are still faced with a bevy of problems. Resolving the economic issues they face and ensuring that they have easy access to quality educational facilities are, undoubtedly, the biggest of challenges. Furthermore, a lot of work is also needed to incorporating their inputs in national, provincial and local development strategies. In this regard, it is pertinent to mention here that National Youth Policy does mention the establishment of National Youth Council with Prime Minister as its chair, and also of Central Youth Councils and City Youth Councils; however, the dream hasn’t materialized yet. Although a platform in the form of Youth Parliament is available to Pakistani youth, yet it is direly needed that this forum be linked with the decision- and policymaking processes so that the youth could play its due role in national and regional affairs.

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