The future is young in Pakistan

Young, educated and forward-looking citizens lead change in Pakistani politics

The future is young

Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times/Redux

It seems not so long ago that dire warnings of Pakistan’s imminent collapse were usual fare. A nuclear-armed nation teetering on the edge was the common theme. Terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction was the nightmare scenario.

Over the past two or three years, the rhetoric has settled somewhat. Pakistan remains a shaky nation, but a nation proving a tenacious will to survive. On May 11, the country, for the first time in its history, saw a democratic transition of power on election day. And despite the near-daily attacks by Taliban militants that marred the campaigning period, more people came out to vote than in any other election in four decades.

The enthusiasm caught many international observers by surprise. The Pakistani Taliban, with typical hyperbole, had warned that Pakistani streets would run red with blood on election day. Still, people poured onto the streets.

Nearly a month has passed since then but the buzz is still in the air. Something has changed in Pakistan. The signs of it were there during the vote, in the absence of the usual rallying cries you hear in this deeply conservative nation–no “Allahu akbar,” no “death to America.” The noise instead echoed some familiar sentiments for Western ears: change.

It was U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 promise to Americans transplanted to the other side of the world, taken up by what some might view as his political doppelgänger–the former cricket star Imran Khan. His promise of a new kind of politics in Pakistan, free of corruption and nepotism, resonated with many. Khan’s Party for Justice (PTI) took control of Pakistan’s most tumultuous and arguably most critical province in terms of Islamic militancy, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan. The PTI also showed significant gains at the national level, garnering the third-most seats in parliament and nipping at the heels of the much more seasoned Pakistan Peoples’ Party.

More important, however, was this: The religious parties failed miserably, garnering a mere five per cent of the popular vote.

“The key success of the PTI,” says Iqbal Khattak, the Peshawar bureau chief for the Daily Times newspaper and long-time observer of Pakistani politics, “is that they energized the Pakistani youth. “Historically, young people have never come to the polls in very large numbers, nor have they been a large constituency for the religious right. But this time around was different. The new generation of Pakistanis is starting to take control of their political future.”

That spells bad news for religious parties, Khattak adds. The under-25s represent around 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population and are increasingly educated, liberal and forward-looking. They have no interest in faith-based politics.

Instead, young people voted for specific issues: solving the electricity crisis, creating jobs, and confronting U.S. foreign policy, particularly drone strikes. The drones issue received a boost during President Obama’s May 23 speech at the National Defense University in Washington, where the man responsible for making drones a permanent fixture in the skies of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas promised a re-evaluation of the program, stricter controls and more transparent oversight. The announcement was vindication for Khan, who had made drone strikes the centrepiece of his political campaign.

That, along with the increasing likelihood of release for at least some prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and Obama’s reiteration of his promise to close the facility completely, as well as the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, makes the Islamist narrative even less relevant.

What remains a wild card, however, is the Pakistani army. Their support of radical Islamists remains the one source of power left for political Islam in Pakistan. But even there, a younger generation of officers is beginning to see the error in the logic of their predecessors.

“The officer class is not very religious to begin with,” says one army major based in Peshawar, requesting anonymity, “but these young officers also reject the idea that radical Muslims can be used as some kind of tool or leverage in India and Afghanistan.”

With those two institutions—the army and the political class—rapidly undergoing a youth-driven transformation, Pakistan’s future looks less bleak. The fears that filled the op-ed pages of the Western media even just a few years ago appear less and less likely. The future is young—and, thankfully, moderate.

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