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Our big opportunity

Pakistan currently finds itself at a critical juncture, grappling with a severe economic crisis that has dominated headlines both within and outside its borders. However, amidst the economic turmoil, there is another noteworthy development stirring within the nation – general elections.

Data from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) indicates a notable increase in the registered voter count over a four-year period, with the total rising from approximately 106 million in 2018 to about 127 million as of July 25 this year.

The latest census, which revealed that 44 per cent of voters belong to the 18-35 age group, highlights the demographic reality that suggests the youth will have significant influence on shaping Pakistan’s political landscape. With a median age of approximately 22 years, Pakistan ranks as one of the world’s youngest nations, coming in as the 36th youngest out of 227 countries globally and the sixth youngest in the Asian region.

Among South Asian countries, Pakistan is the second youngest, with Afghanistan being the only one having a higher proportion of young people.

The PPP, recognizing this demographic advantage, has strategically positioned itself to harness the power of the youth vote (63 per cent of the country’s population is aged between 15 and 30).

PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, in a recent statement, has emphasized the importance of Pakistan’s youth, declaring them the country’s greatest asset. This acknowledgment is not merely rhetorical; it is reflected in the party’s policies and initiatives designed to empower and engage the youth.

The PPP’s dedication to the Sindh Flood Emergency Housing Reconstruction Project, with its goal of constructing or renovating 2.1 million sustainable housing units, reflects a sincere commitment to the welfare of those impacted by natural disasters. Notably, 70 per cent of the beneficiaries of this housing scheme are women. By addressing the housing requirements of the most vulnerable, the PPP aims to earn the trust and support of both women and the youth.

The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) has also been instrumental in providing financial assistance to those in need, particularly during the challenging tenure of the PTI government. The reactivation of accounts for 192,000 beneficiaries, who were previously removed by the PTI government, exemplifies the PPP’s dedication to social welfare and economic relief, which resonates with the youth.

However, it is not only the youth that hold the key to the upcoming elections. Women, constituting 50 per cent of the voters, play an equally pivotal role in shaping Pakistan’s democratic future. Ensuring their active participation in the electoral process is not just a matter of equity but a democratic imperative. Women’s voices, choices, and concerns must be heard and represented in the political arena.

We must engage in efforts to encourage and facilitate women’s participation in voting. This engagement goes beyond mere tokenism; it must actively involve women in political discourse and decision-making. When women are empowered and engaged, the democratic process becomes more inclusive and reflective of the diverse voices and perspectives within the nation.

The PPP’s Lady Health Worker (LHW) programme, initiated by Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, has a primary goal of delivering essential primary health services to both rural and urban areas. It stands as a testament to the PPP’s dedication to mainstreaming women in the workforce and promoting their social and economic empowerment.

This programme, which commenced in 1994 with a workforce of approximately 30,000 women, has since expanded significantly, with over 125,000 employees now deployed across all districts of the country. In today’s challenging economic climate, Pakistan needs more initiatives like this to address the growing economic hardships.

As the country stands on the cusp of these crucial elections, it is evident that the youth and women can be the driving force behind a democratic transformation in Pakistan. The stakes are high, and the outcome of these elections will significantly impact the trajectory of the nation’s political and economic future. Therefore, it is imperative that efforts be made to ensure a massive turnout of both young people and women at the polls.

Increasing youth participation in elections requires more than just appealing rhetoric; it demands concrete actions. Political parties should prioritize issues that resonate with the youth, such as job creation, education reform, and social justice. By addressing these concerns and crafting policies that directly impact the lives of young Pakistanis, parties can earn their trust and commitment to the democratic process.

The situation regarding young voter turnout seems to be evolving, as evidenced by the rise in young voter participation from 26 per cent in 2013 to 37 per cent in 2018. This change has led to a decrease in the difference between overall voter turnout and youth voter turnout, reducing it from 28 percentage points in 2013 to 15 percentage points in 2018.

The youth should not only be encouraged but actively given a platform within our political systems, as they can play a pivotal role in driving progressive change. In a ground-breaking move, Dubai ruler and UAE PM Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum directly invited applications from the nation’s youth to join his cabinet and represent their demographic on social media.

Pakistan should take inspiration from such initiatives and similarly integrate young voices into the political arena to ensure their representation and influence in decision-making.

The government of Bangladesh, under its Economic Acceleration and Resilience for NEET (EARN) Project, aims to equip about 900,000 economically disengaged youth with skills and alternative education needed for employment and entrepreneurship. What’s more progressive about this project is that 60 per cent of the targeted population consist of women. Projects like these are the need of the hour in Pakistan to empower the vibrant youth of our nation.

The demographic dividend of a youthful population and the democratic imperative of gender equality make the involvement of these two segments of society crucial. It is through their active participation, informed choices, and commitment to democratic values that Pakistan can overcome its challenges and build a more inclusive and prosperous future.

The upcoming elections provide an opportunity for the nation to reaffirm its commitment to democracy and ensure that the voices of its youth and women are not just heard but celebrated.

Dr Sharmila Faruqi, "Our big opportunity," The News. 2023-09-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Elections , Democratic , Benazir Bhutto , Bilawal Bhutto , Pakistan , NEET , PPP