Pakistan will hold its general elections on Thursday but the low-key atmosphere makes it seem unlike voting season. With a predictable outcome likely to see Nawaz Sharif return as prime minister, election rallies and mobilisation, as well as party campaigns and manifestos, got off to a late start in Pakistan. Election-related activities are fewer than usual and the streets and neighbourhoods are not as tense as is usually the case ahead of elections.

In contrast, videos and social media posts encouraging youngsters to vote are upbeat. A music video titled Vote Tey Chadiya, Vote Te Dala – I voted! – aims to motivate Pakistan’s young population to vote in the elections scheduled for Thursday.

The two-and-a-half-minute video by the United Nations Development Programme was released on January 24 on YouTube with the tagline “Your voice matters!”. Set to a local hip-hop and rap song, it shows a diverse young population enthusiastic about voting.


Another motivational video aimed at increasing turnout is by ARY TV titled Niklo Pakistan Ki Khatir – step out for the sake of Pakistan – features writer Anwar Maqsood. “The vote exists for you,” he says in Urdu, noting that democratic administrations come to power for the people.

Pakistan is a young country with around 64% of the population made up of people between the ages of 15-29, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Although 66% of 18-25-year-olds are registered as voters, their turnout is much lower than average, said Haris Gazdar, director and senior researcher at the Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi. Gallup Pakistan found that the average voter turnout for young people was 31.5% in 2013 and 2018. The figure for both years was 40% for women and 53% for the overall national voter turnout.

Even in 2018, when Pakistan’s last general elections were held, there was a poor turnout among the young population. Political parties have not really had a big impact on youth voter registration and turnout, Gazdar told Sapan News.

Pakistan’s young population faces growing social and economic challenges. Many struggle to find hope – or leave. In 2022, over 750,000 left Pakistan for better employment and education prospects – a figure that surpassed 800,000 in the first half of 2023. They include trained professionals like doctors, nurses, engineers, IT experts, and accountants.

Many resort to illegal routes. At least 300 Pakistanis died when a migrant ship that sank off Greece in June 2023. Among those who died included 14-year-old TikTok sensation Abuzer.

Social media-savvy Imran Khan, the former prime minister who was ousted in Parliament in April 2022, is credited with having “awakened” a generation of young people – rhetoric that Gazdar said should be taken “with a pinch of salt”.

“Yes, much of the street and social media presence of PTI is made up of young people,” he said, referring to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. But overall voter registration and turnout rates, even in 2018 when the “system” favoured the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, remained low in the 18-25 group, he said.

Suppressing any party hinders political development, he said, but “a less noticed but more important issue” is the lack of political engagement among large segments of the population including youth.

The victimisation of Khan and his party means he is now likely to get more sympathy votes. A huge voter turnout on polling day may make it difficult to “manage” the results. It will not be easy for Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction to obtain the one-third majority required to form the government and a weak coalition government is on the cards, say analysts.

An important election

Pakistan’s last election in 2018 ushered in former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as prime minister, then favoured by the nation’s powerful army that controls politics behind the scenes.

Opponents termed him as “selected” rather than “elected”. After a falling out in April 2022, Khan became Pakistan’s first prime minister to be removed by Parliament.

In just one week, he was convicted in three separate cases . Many leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf were arrested, went into hiding or left the party.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been stripped of its symbol, the cricket bat, forcing its candidates to contest the elections as independents. Whether those who win will stay with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or join another party remains to be seen.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf shot to prominence, taking up the establishment’s longtime narrative of “all-politicians-are-corrupt”.

But it is “hypocritical” to hold the corruption of politicians to account while ignoring the corruption of generals, argues journalist Munizae Jahangir, who is also co-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “God forbid if politics ends here, we risk facing the same turmoil as Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Egypt.”

When political parties, lawyers, and journalists disappear from society, the country’s overall structure hangs in balance, leading to anarchy, she said in a podcast in January.

“Sometimes, corruption comes second and values of free speech and free and fair rule come first, and they are interrelated,” said Ahmed Khan Nizamani, 22, a second-year law student in Karachi.

The narrative that charismatic populist leaders can bring in a “one-man army” revolution contributes to a shallow understanding of politics, Nizamani told Sapan News. This phenomenon is visible elsewhere, too, like the United States, Brazil, India and other countries with populist leaders, he said.

Sohail Ghuri, 40, a truck art painter, paints a portrait of former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan on wooden planks of a truck at a workshop in Peshawar in November 2023. Credit: Reuters.

Outreach to young population

In an effort to engage with the younger population, caretaker prime minister Anwar ul Haq held televised interactions with students at educational institutions, even taking thorny questions. Some even targeted the prime minister, asking why a technocratic, caretaker government was making major policy decisions.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who held office with the previous government as the country’s youngest foreign minister, and former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif have also interacted with university students over the past two weeks.

Bhutto-Zardari’s manifesto, billed as “Awami Muashi Muhaida” (public economic contract), takes up issues such as as the de-corporatisation of national security systems, labourers’ social security, access to education and financial support for youth, and climate resilience and energy transition.

The 35-year-old urged older politicians to “stay home and rest”.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is campaigning on the shoulders of its previous development and infrastructure projects in the country.

Projects highlighted as evidence of their commitment to the youth include the Danish Schools initiative in 2010 providing free, high-quality education to underprivileged children. Another was the merit-based distribution of laptops to students at public higher education institutes.

Political participation

While youth participation in politics remains relatively low, the “old faces” Bhutto-Zardari referred to are still contesting elections from all parties. Young adults interviewed by BBC Urdu in January doubted their chances of winning if they contested elections.

They cited challenges such as convincing voters in a country with pulverised institutions and the need for a strong political background as well as connections.

One of the priorities outlined in the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) 2024 manifesto is to revive student unions, banned in 1984 during Gen Zia ul Haq’s military rule. The ban has been lifted only in Sindh province and at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

Student unions remain inactive, with many university administrators wary of potential politicisation. Many also confuse them with the student wings of political parties, which are often violent.

Student politics were once an important arena for left-wing mobilisation, says Gazdar of the Collective for Social Science Research. The right-wing came to counter the influence of the Left, often violently, followed by ethnic and then sectarian organisations.

“Student politics cannot be expected to be all that different from what is happening in the country as a whole,” said Gazdar. “The early success of left-wing student politics was due to their focus on student welfare issues. Maybe we need to return to this.”

Efforts have also been made to increase women’s inclusion in electoral politics. Section 206 of the Elections Act 2017 mandates at least 5% women representation in general seats. However, major political parties often award tickets to women for seats that are impossible to win and focus on swing constituencies.

In the 2018 elections, there was an increase in the number of female candidates compared to the previous elections, but fewer women won in general seats.

“It is an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the quota law,” says Gazdar. He said it is still better than not having any women candidates. “It will make a small contribution to changing perceptions in the long term – that women can and should be seen in constituency politics.”

Abdullah Zahid studies mass communication at the University of Karachi and is an intern with Sapan News. His handle on X is @AbdullahZahid.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.