ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The stunning turn of events in Cairo last week have understandably prompted comparisons between Egypt and Pakistan. Both countries have a history of military coups; both struggle to balance political Islam with a crackdown on terrorism; both are considered strategic allies of the United States.
While such generalizations gloss over their unique histories and challenges, Egypt can still provide an instructive example of the dangers of political non-inclusivity, particularly among a growing youth population. Programs that highlight the advantages of democracy, expose young people to other political views and make clear the value of a healthy opposition party stand to serve Pakistan well.
However, until this past May, democratically elected governments in Pakistan have struggled to simply to finish out full terms, getting young people excited about the democratic process has been a challenge. A widely circulated British Council survey from April 2013 indicated that Pakistan’s youth were so disillusioned by their government’s failure that more of them favored Islamic law or military rule as an alternative.
In the run up to Pakistan’s election, with million of new votes up for grabs — many of them from constituents 18-25 years-old — politicians knew they could not afford to let such disenchantment sit. In particular, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party made a point of courting young people, offering the promise of something new and different from the country’s established political dynasties or powerful military.
While not quite a Tahrir-style revolution, the response to Khan’s campaigning — what PTI referred to as “the tsunami” — was huge. Khan drew comparisons from the international media to President Obama for his ability to energize what some members of the political class considered an apathetic segment of society.
Moeed Yusuf, a Senior Pakistan Expert at the United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan think-tank in Washington, explained: “for [Khan], the tsunami was about creating a discourse so that people felt the need and responsibility to come out and vote.”
Many Pakistanis at home and abroad reacted with enthusiasm. In days leading up to the election, “Yes, We Khan” t-shirts could be spotted all over the streets of Lahore. Well-known fashion designer Maheen Kardar Ali released a line of Imran Khan kurtas, which quickly sold out and were being modeled across Pakistani cities.
“The massive amount of engagement across all strata of society was remarkable,” said Rizwan Tufail, an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School whose family is from Faisalabad. Having lived through numerous Pakistani elections characterized by “disinterest and boredom,” the campaign process and Election Day made him optimistic.
PTI did end up being a popular choice among the country’s young, educated voters, but did not win enough seats to form Pakistan’s government; for now, Khan and his party will have to be content with the challenging task of running Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan and the unruly tribal areas.
Even so, the electric atmosphere and political interest Khan’s campaign created among Pakistan’s youth should not be allowed to fizzle out and the loss must not alienate those who supported him from the democratic process.
Wazir Ahmed Jogezai, a former deputy speaker in Pakistan’s National Assembly, would argue that this is where programs like Pakistan’s Youth Parliament come in.
Launched in 2007, the Youth Parliament is a mock National Assembly that mirrors the lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature, where Jogezai was once a member. Young people — ages range from 18 to 29 — from each of Pakistan’s provinces and areas go through a rigorous selection process to participate in the yearlong program in which they learn about Pakistan’s legislative process and debate hot political issues.
The program is an initiative of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), a non-partisan think tank that focuses on legislative and public policy research. Jogezai, who has been involved with the project since its inception, explains that the aim is to teach young people about the legislative process, regardless of specific political beliefs. And at least in this small group, it seems to be working.
At last week’s Youth Parliament session in Islamabad, members effortlessly switched back and forth between English and Urdu as they animatedly debated issues from polio to power outages, clearly invested in each topic. Even members who told me they had supported PTI during the elections still seemed excited about the legislative process rather than disillusioned by the party’s performance.
Although many participants attend prestigious universities in Lahore or Islamabad traditionally dominated by Pakistan’s wealthy upper class, there are also those from the more violent provinces and rural areas who bring perspectives different from the urban elite.
Member Aseela Shamim Haq is from Sindh province, but she grew up moving all around Pakistan. Despite having already seen so much of the country, she feels as if she has learned even more about Pakistan this year. “I realized there are a lot of other perspectives and I can’t just say that I’m right,” she explained.
Nabila Jaffer, a talkative young woman from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has found the exposure valuable as well. “We are learning practical politics,” she added.
While programs like the Youth Parliament will not solve all of Pakistan’s myriad economic, energy, and security problems, they can inspire some of Pakistan’s next generation to keep working for progress within the democratic system.
“I think we have cultivated an interest in politics in some,” Jogezai says, adding, “Maybe they will form their own political party one day.” If the excitement generated by the recent elections can be maintained, his idea is hardly farfetched.
Alexandra Raphel is graduate student in pubic police at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is based in Lahore for part of this summer doing independent research and writing. She attended a recent session of Pakistan's Youth Parliament, a mock National Assembly for mostly college-age participants.