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The people must get political

The last few years have been defined by events of monumental proportions, events that caused quite a stir around the world. From the Middle East to Africa to Latin America to Asia and then to Eastern Europe, there have been political upheavals triggered in part by the increasing unresponsiveness of governments to the aspirations of the masses and in part to increasing political awareness, something that became all the more pervasive thanks to the deep-rooted penetration of information and communication technologies.

One dominant thread running across political movements in the countries of these regions has been a pronounced lack of leadership by established set of actors such as political parties. To a large extent, such mass mobilisations has been people-driven, drawing crowds from various walks of life including those with diametrically opposed political and ideological opinions but all fired up to achieve a shared objective.

A survey carried out by the Pew Research Centre offers interesting insights into the dynamics of these protests besides throwing light on variables shaping people’s participation in the political process. Titled: ‘Many in emerging and developing nations disconnected from politics’, the survey is based on 3,7620 face-to-face interviews in 33 countries involving adults aged 18 and older conducted from March 17 to June 05, 2014. The survey examines patterns of political engagement in a variety of activities including voting, protesting and participating in online activities in both developing and developed countries.

However, contrary to perception, the survey found out that many people in the countries polled remain relatively disconnected from politics. Although the majority of them said they voted in elections, few have been passionate about other forms of political participation. Out of 33 countries surveyed, a median of just 15 percent people said they ever took part in a protest, with only nine percent saying they ever signed a petition.

The survey found out that the level of political engagement varied depending upon variables such as demographics, education, age factor, economic status, political efficacy and gender. People who are wealthier and better educated are more actively engaged in political process. While older people are more likely to vote, young prefer to engage in other forms of political process – including online activism. Younger people are less attracted by conventional modes of participation in politics such as voting and contacting government officials for redressal of complaints. In 21 out of 33 countries surveyed, younger people are significantly less likely to vote compared with their older counterparts aged 50 and older. The young are more interested in unconventional modes such as online activism by sharing political stories on the internet and expressing their views on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Of all forms of political engagement, voting has been considered the best and most effective mode of participation in the political process. A median of 78 percent said that they voted in elections. Asia and Latin America have the highest voter participation (85 percent) followed by Eastern Europe (80 percent). Voting is less common in Middle East where voting opportunities are few and far between due to a combination of unique political systems and suffrage limitations.

Factors affecting the level of political participation of the populace include frequency of elections, the development of media and civil society organisations and presence of a political environment that enables and facilitates political engagement.

Interestingly, as the Pew Survey found out, Middle East and Africa bag the top positions in terms of higher political participation. Egypt saw two mass movements in recent years; one which became the basis of ousting military dictator Hosni Mubarak and the other was instrumental in dethronement of democratically elected president Mohammad Morsi followed by the military takeover. In addition to Egypt, other Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia also registered higher political engagement.

Compared with Middle East and Africa, Asia ranked low in terms of involvement in politics. Bangladesh topped the Asian countries where two-thirds of its citizens (65 percent) reported higher levels of participation in politics with Pakistan showing 12 percent, Indonesia 20 percent, Philippines 21 percent and Malaysia 26 percent. Pakistan has the lowest level of political engagement among the 30 countries polled.

The survey identified that the level of political efficacy depends largely on the view people have of their governments being responsive to their needs. A median of 77 percent in Latin America believe that politicians and government officials care little about their needs. Political efficacy in Eastern Europe is similarly low, where seven out of ten people interviewed expressed their lack of satisfaction with the working of the governments. Asia happens to have the highest level of political efficacy where a median of 55 percent across the region reported dissatisfaction with the responsiveness of government officials about what they think.

The Pew Survey offers instructive lessons for Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. First, it establishes that by and large the majority of people remain aloof from the political process. This certainly does not augur well for a country where civilian governments have had short stints in power. This explains why voter turnout has historically been low, barring the 2013 elections which registered the highest turnout but was still short of world equivalents.

Second, Pakistan has a pronounced youth bulge in its demographic structure where the youth chunk forms more than 60 percent of overall population size. Thanks to deep-rooted penetration of information and communication technologies, online activism is on the increase in the country with the majority of the youth glued to Facebook, Twitter etc. Their dissatisfaction with the system is well-known; they think it is not capable of delivering fundamental rights such as employment, education and health.

The youth bulge is a disaster in the making if no long-term policy prescriptions are offered. The increasing activism of the youth in political affairs can be rendered into a constructive force for the development of democracy if the governments engage with them and introduce pro-youth policies.

Added to this is the need for greater realisation among the country’s political elite regarding tailoring the system to make it capable of responding to people’s aspirations. Vote may be an agent of change at a theoretical level but what will make it more meaningful is the fact that people develop the realisation that their opinions and view of the government matter and that their votes are probably the sole reason deciding its fate.

The journey towards becoming a meaningful democracy will be an outcome of conscious policy choices aimed at making people participants in the decision-making process and investing them with the belief that they are the masters of their own destiny. It is in this context that local bodies elections hold the key to the empowerment of the people – politically, socially and economically.

The 18th Amendment represented a sea-change in the country’s constitutional, political and administrative order as the federating units were empowered through devolution of seventeen subjects on the concurrent list. However, the real benefits of devolution are yet to be reaped and its true potential still to be unlocked as the process has yet to be carried down to the level of local governments.

Resolving people’s problems right at their doorstep, the spirit of the local government system, will go a long way in making the system responsive, bridging the trust deficit between the government and its citizens and engaging them actively in politics. The question is: are we ready for it?

The writer is a graduate of Columbia University.  Email: jamilnasir1969@gmail.com Twitter: @Jamilnasir1

Jamil Nasir, "The people must get political," The News. 2015-01-14.
Keywords: Social sciences , National issues , Political process , Post elections-2013 , Social media , Political issues , Civil society , Political parties , 18th amendment , Politicians , Politics , Democracy , Hosni Mubarak , Mohammad Morsi , Pakistan , Palestine , Malaysia , Africa