Pakistan: Will the Youth Bulge turn into a Democratic Dividend?

I argued in an earlier post that much of Pakistan’s future direction will hinge on events unfolding this year.  The first of these are the national elections scheduled for May 11, which could be decided by a large number of first-time voters.  These voters are the product of one of the world’s largest youth bulges and their electoral impact is a critical indicator to watch for.

India tends to receive most of the attention when it comes to mind-boggling demographic trends, though its western neighbor is no laggard either.  True, India is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in about a decade or so.  But by some estimates, Pakistan eclipsed Brazil to move into the fifth position last year and could pass over Indonesia to take the fourth spot by 2030.  Yes, India will add the equivalent of Europe’s labor force over the next 15 years and end up supplying a full quarter of the global workforce.  But Pakistan’s population nearly doubled over the past two decades and its working-age population is growing at a faster clip than the overall population.  Pakistan also is a younger country, with a median age of 22 versus 26 in India.  And according to Forbes magazine, Karachi is the world’s fastest-growing megacity, with its population expanding 80 percent in 2000-2010.  Such dramatic growth helps to explain the city’s steady slide into chaos (see here and here).

In theory, the youth bulges in India and Pakistan are good things, since a growing proportion of workers to non-workers in a society – what is often termed the “demographic dividend” – helps propel capital accumulation and economic growth.  Youth bulges played an important role in powering the East Asian economic miracle from 1965-1990.   But it is unclear whether this pattern will be replicated in South Asia, since India and Pakistan have difficulty in generating productive employment for new entrants to their labor forces.*

Indeed, the Global Trends 2030 report issued by the U.S. National Intelligence Council late last year, warns that Pakistan’s burgeoning young population, combined with a slow-growing economy, “portends increased instability.”  James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, underscored this point in Congressional testimony earlier this month when he stated that Pakistan “faces no real prospects for sustainable economic growth.”  A new assessment by the Asian Development Bank likewise warns that the country’s growth prospects are dim and will remain far below what is required to absorb new workforce entrants.

Some are touting Pakistan’s young generation, which is the largest in the country’s history, as the decisive factor in shaping its political evolution.  As one analyst puts it:

[Y]oung people have become a formidable political force, likely determining who wins the 2013 election….  Pakistan’s young people are increasingly patriotic, socially conscious, and globally oriented, and the person or political party that can play to these qualities and win over this coveted bloc will shape politics in the region for years to come.

Similarly, a new British Council report argues that there is

a transformational opportunity for any party that succeeds in motivating young voters to go to the polls. A ten percentage point increase in youth turnout would translate into an additional 2.5 million votes on election day. It could also be enough to swing the vote of large numbers of marginal constituencies.

According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, 20 percent of the country’s 84 million registered voters are under the age of 26 and almost half are between 18 and 35.  One-sixth of these registered voters are new to the rolls.  And much of the rising popularity enjoyed in the last year or so by Imran Khan, a cricket hero who until recently was a politician of little note, is due to support by urban youths.  Still, it is not certain whether the potentially sizeable youth vote will actually materialize or, if it does, which political parties would benefit, especially since voter turnout in Pakistan is traditionally low.

Moreover, the British Council study disconcertedly finds that Pakistan’s young people are overwhelmingly pessimistic about their country’s future and have very low regard for democratic institutions but a high opinion of the military establishment and religious organizations.  Indeed, their support for military rule or sharia law is higher than for democratic governance.

Even more worrisome is a new report about how the jihadi movement draws its strength from Pakistan’s mainstream society.  Of the tens of thousands of young men recruited into militant groups, the report finds, most are products of working- and middle-class families as well as the public education system.  This contradicts the conventional wisdom that terrorist recruits come largely from impoverished communities or the madrasas system of religious education.

Pakistan’s political future turns in significant measure on whether its massive number of young people becomes a force for moderation or radicalism.  The next few weeks will offer clues as to which way they will turn.

*I have written elsewhere in greater detail about the deep challenges India faces in converting its demographic potential into economic reality.  A new overview of the country’s urban youth can be found here.

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