The selfish state and the near-sighted voter

I was very interested in Cyril Almeida’s column for Dawn today. In it, Cyril does a great job of expressing what is, I think, a common frustration – especially among the urban intelligentsia. We got our democracy in 2008, and it’s been three years – why doesn’t Islamabad look like London yet? And if everyone is as disappointed as the people in my sitting room, what is going to happen in the next elections?

Cyril says that conventional wisdom’s focus on constituency is undermined by the unpredictability of two factors. The first, demographics.

Conventional wisdom has it that the people want democracy to continue, they don’t want the army back. But the last time that theory was tested, a mere 35 million people turned out to vote in 2008. What did the other 130 million want?

Remove kids aged 14 and below from the scope of political action, and you’re still left with 80-odd million people whose opinion we know little about. Are they just indifferent to democracy, at least Pakistan’s version of it, or are they a combustible mixture waiting for the right catalyst to be poured on?

This is compelling in the long-term, but not for the next elections because Cyril’s overstating the case. “The other 130 million” don’t necessarily have a say in elections. Children, for example, don’t get a vote. Cyril recognises this when he says, ‘remove kids aged 14 and below…’, but why stop there? Imran Khan may be the fashionable choice of a couple million urban teenagers, but the fact remains that no matter how many Imran Khan Facebook pages a 16-year-old likes, he still doesn’t get to vote.

Let’s compare voter turnout in Pakistan to voter turnout in two of the oldest and most prosperous democracies, the UK and US.

In the UK, voter turnout has been better, but has still never broken the 85 per cent mark, typically hovering closer to 75 per cent. But when you break it down by age, young people don’t vote. Only 44 per cent of Britains under 25 bothered to show up in 2010.

In America, voter turnout over the past half-century has hovered around 55 per cent. In the 2008 elections, voter turnout was over 60 per cent, but in 2010 it dropped to 41 per cent. Young Americans, though, are less likely than older Americans to vote. When the voting turnout reached 61 per cent in 2008, over 50 per cent of young people voted. But two years later, young voter turnout dropped by 60 per cent.

Whatever young people want, it doesn’t matter if they don’t show up to vote. And empirical evidence suggests that, for many reasons beyond being ‘just indifferent to democracy’, they’re probably not going to show up en masse to storm the polls in the next elections, either.

Then there’s the other possible ‘element of surprise’ that Cyril mentions.

Still, the notion that Pakistani politics is about constituency, constituency, constituency is undercut by the results of the last two elections. In ’08, the electorate singled out Musharraf’s men for punishment; in ’02, the American arrival in Afghanistan powered the MMA to wins in Balochistan and then-NWFP.

I would take issue with this reading of electoral history as well. In 2008, the electorate certainly was fed up with Musharraf’s decade of dictatorial misrule, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that the people were simply voting against Mushy and would have voted for anyone just to punish him. 2008 was not that long ago, and I still remember the mood quite well. We wanted not just to get rid of Musharraf’s regime, but to usher in a new era of democracy – which we did, messy though it may be.

Where I think Cyril is really off the mark, though, is how he describes the MMA success in 2002. Though it may be convenient to look at the American arrival in Afghanistan, it’s beyond reductive to leave out the less convenient fact that the MMA’s ‘vote for Quran or vote for America’ campaign still only managed to win 63 seats, and that while PPP and PML-N were being handicapped by LFO. And even this supposed ‘rise to power’ only really took place, as Cyril notes, in parts of Balochistan and NWFP. Without the help of the state and establishment, MMA’s gains were wiped out in 2008, despite the fact that anti-American sentiment was much higher than in 2002.

As for the possibility that “a right-wing ideologue could ride the wave of crazed religiosity that a Mumtaz Qadri-type act can unleash”, I think this is much more likely a scenario in the paranoid halls of Washington than the streets of Jhelum. Not because a disturbing number of people aren’t sympathetic to Salmaan Taseer Shaheed’s killer, but because that sympathy is rooted in complicated socio-cultural issues and not a popular desire to live under a Taliban-style theocratic regime.

The more interesting variable is, as always, the establishment. The ‘deep state’ has a long history of meddling in politics. Supposedly, the political wing of ISI has been disbanded, but even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility of it being reinstated if certain elements felt it was in ‘national interest’ to do so. There’s been some suggestion that establishment support is responsible for Imran Khan’s uncanny rise from zero to the front page, but it remains to be seen whether Imran Khan’s main constituency will be willing to melt in the hot sun on election day.

Then there’s the really scary scenario that Cyril explores.

As for the rank and filers tucked away in their orderly cantonments, who’s to say what they’re really thinking about and talking over among themselves. Rural and urban Pakistan have not stood still over the last 30 years, so why must the products of those societies be what they have always been, docile and disciplined?

This is what I would call the real ‘Bangladesh Option’, seeing as how it would likely result in a re-play of the early years there with one ‘rank-and-file’ coup after another spinning the nation into even greater chaos and disorder. Still, perhaps I have more faith than Cyril in the discipline and good sense of the rank and file because I just don’t see this happening.

But the biggest point of confusion in Cyril’s piece is in the conclusion.

And what’s the point of a transition to democracy when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff?

When a state exists to tend to its own needs to the almost-total exclusion of the public’s dreams and aspirations, it will eventually become a nightmare for everyone involved.

The point of a transition to democracy is that when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff…you get to change the set up without having to actually push the country off the cliff. Democracy allows the public to demand that the state respond to the public’s dreams and aspirations. It’s the dictatorship, whether of khahkis or clerics, that produces real nightmares.

Election 2023

Tomorrow's Leaders

With the next elections less than three years away, you might be wondering why I’m writing about elections over 10 years down the road. As it turns out, the two are not unrelated, and, in fact, one may be very dependent on the other.

When the next elections come around in 2013, it will largely be a battle between the same players that we have witnessed almost non-stop over the past few years.

Though the military has largely – and to their great credit – stayed out of politics, the media has more than taken up the mantle of outside agitator and political meddler. Popular media names have thrown all sense of responsibility out the window, spreading rumours and making dire predictions that never seem to come true (and never seem to result in apologies, either). Accusing everyone under the sun of corruption without ever providing any evidence has become a popular parlour game among the nation’s intelligentsia.

But there are consequences for these actions. Irfan Husain points to one serious consequence in his column from Saturday’s Dawn, “The party of the old guard”: the lack of enthusiasm for politics among the nation’s youth.

A major reason for this lack of interest in politics among educated young Pakistanis is the constant hammering of politicians and the ramshackle democratic system by the electronic media. Day in and day out, retired bureaucrats and generals, as well as out-of-power politicians, are invited to TV studios to abuse the government of the day.

Apart from being a destabilising force, this drip-drip-drip of venom understandably turns young people off politics. They do not have the experience to discern between genuine criticism and a campaign inspired by dark, cynical forces.

I hear this all the time when I talk to my friends. No matter whose name comes up – Zardari, Nawaz, Altaf, Imran – the response is always the same. “I can’t stand that guy. He’s corrupt. He should be in jail.” Really, wow! What have they done that’s so corrupt? “Come on, you know it’s true. Everyone knows it. Don’t be a sucker.” Okay, then who do you like? “Nobody, man. I hate politics. They’re all corrupt.” So you think the military should take over again? “God no! We just need some real people in government, not these feudalists and their cronies.” Okay, so why don’t you get involved in politics? You’re smart, you’d be great. “Are you kidding? No way. Even if I could get elected, there’s no way I would put myself through that.”

Complaining is cheap. It’s also safe. Who wants to get involved in politics in a country where doing so means being attacked from all sides and having unfounded rumours spread about you? It’s no wonder that the youth aren’t going to get involved. It’s much easier to go into business or journalism or law where you’re seemingly above reproach.

I hear people complain about Bilawal getting involved in politics. But who are the other young people that are doing anything? At least Bilawal is doing something. If you think you’d be better, why not do something? Everyone starts somewhere, right?

In 2013, the elections will be between the same people. All the parties will field mostly the same candidates under the same leadership. That’s fine for 2013, maybe, but these guys can’t run everything forever. And if everyone is really as unsatisfied as they claim to be, why is no one stepping up to bat?

The truth is, all these rumours and conspiracy theories are more than harmless entertainment or hard politics. They’re creating an entire generation of disillusioned young people who will grow up to be disillusioned adults.

There is no shortage of ‘Ministers In Waiting’, as can easily be seen from their incessant campaigning on TV talk shows. Sharif & Co. along with Imran’s XI like to toss the idea of midterm elections; Altaf Bhai continues flirting with his ‘French Revolution’; and Mushy couldn’t keep his true intentions quiet long enough to get back in the country. Someone is going to be in charge of the government in 2023. Do we want that to be our best and brightest? Or do we want it to be the only person willing to put up with the abuse? We’d better decide now, or we may not have a choice.

New Study: Pakistani Youth Are Moderates

Pakistani youth are serious about their own religion, but do not want to impose it on other people, a new study conducted by Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) has revealed.

The latest issue of ‘Conflict and Peace Studies’, a quarterly research journal of the institute carries the outcome of the study focussed at examining the thinking patterns of Pakistan’s youth, the Daily Times reported.

According to the PIPS survey involving postgraduate students from 16 public and private universities and postgraduate public colleges across the country, 92.4 per cent respondents overwhelmingly considered religion to be an important factor in their lives, though 51.7 percent admitted that they did not offer prayers regularly.

In what may come as a surprise to many, 79.4 per cent of the surveyed Pakistani youth thought that the Pakistani Taliban did not serve the cause of Islam.

While 85.6 per cent respondents believed that suicide bombings were prohibited in Islam, 61.7 per cent people supported military operations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

According to the survey, 95 per cent Pakistani youth favoured women education. (ANI)

Pakistan’s Foundation? Its Youth.

“The foundation of every state is its youth.”

Short. Simple. To the point. It’s a fact that was articulated in the third century by Greek biographer, Diogenes Laertius. Why then do some countries remain oblivious to this easy and accessible truth? The country of Pakistan currently boasts one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. That, coupled with a booming population of 180 million, more than half of which is under the age of 17, presents Pakistan with two options: either to cultivate or neglect its youth. From its dismal statistics, including the fact that Pakistan’s illiterate population is currently growing and that Pakistan has something close to 6.8 million out-of-school children, it appears that Pakistan has chosen to neglect its youth.

In youth lies opportunity. The youth represent a form of weaponry an

d defense that no amount of missiles can surpass. I believe that this opportunity comes in either education or extremism. And it is my utmost belief that these two opportunities a

re, indeed, mutually exclusive. If the government chooses to provide a consistent education, a well-balanced life is promoted. If there is a lack of consistent education, the opposite of a well-balanced life is promoted, including, but not limited to, extremism in poverty and ignorance. Without an education, the only opportunity to exist lies within extreme tendencies.

Two opportunities: education or extremism. With the government overspending on military matters and under spending on education, Pakistan has opted for extremism in its finances and, ultimately, in its country’s own agenda. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the foundation and very literal future of any state, and in especial, Pakistan, lies within the youth. With Pakistan’s largely and largely growing youth-oriented population, the overspending on the military is a

statistic that is inversely affecting the youth as a whole. Understandably, Pakistan has had to face certain setbacks. Its counterinsurgency and war on terror have definitely made domestic priorities hard to balance. But education should never have been out the balance in the first place. Like government, ideally, it needs to be a staple in Pakistani society. The disparate educational system that spreads across public and private schools needs to be modified; while three fourths of Pakistan is learning the bare minimum, if that, an elite one-fourth is learning the maximum and then some. The shadow cast by Pakistan’s infamous ghost schools – schools that the government has on record but in actuality do not even exist- make ghosts out of the children who purportedly attend them as well. The absentee rate of tea

chers in Pakistan competes with the American urge to cut class. And the national curriculum remains outdated and in need of mass revision.

Instead of overspending on the military, I propose that Pakistan invests in an extremely ancient yet equally effective weapon: its youth. As a Pakistani-American, I see the education of my family in Pakistan as a constant struggle upwards. In all my time as a student, I have never once thought that my teachers would not come to school, that my school might shut down, or that I might not have a desk upon which to write. We’ve been lucky. Living in America does that. And if you’re reading this, chances are your educational experience was far from ghostly. But until the government of Pakistan chooses to place youth over weaponry, it is upon those of us who have received an education to give back.

After all, it requires the education of one to cultivate the education of another. Give back. Look back. And strengthen the very literal back of Pakistan- i.e. its youth- by giving back.