Transparent Elections:- A new opinion survey of young voters in Pakistan reports that a majority anticipate that national elections next week will be transparent and fair, even though one of the front-runners has been jailed and the country’s independent human rights commission says there is little chance of a free and fair vote.
The youth survey, commissioned by VOA and conducted by international polling agency IPSOS, delved into the voting trends, institutional trust and foreign policy preferences of voters aged 18 to 34. More than 56.8 million young people are eligible to vote on February 8.
In the months leading up to the polls, a major political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been subjected to a nationwide military-backed state crackdown, with hundreds of grassroots workers detained, abducted and forced to quit the party or politics altogether.
The imprisoned Khan was sentenced to 14 more years this week on charges of corruption and leaking state secrets. The Supreme Court also has backed the election commission’s decision to deprive the former cricket captain’s party of its iconic cricket bat electoral symbol.
Despite those actions widely seen as targeting one of the country’s leading parties, the survey found about 65% of respondents expressed hope that the elections will be conducted transparently.
The survey also found that Pakistan’s powerful military, which this year has been again accused of interfering in the country’s politics, remains the most trusted institution among the youth.
Some 74% of respondents expressed trust in the military. The Supreme Court was rated as the second most reliable institution, with 58% of respondents saying they trust it. The media was third, with 54% support. The election commission garnered the least confidence, with 42%.
Bilal I Gilani, executive director of Gallup Pakistan, another survey research and consultancy firm, said that the results showing broad support for the military are consistent with previous polls, including a Gallup survey conducted in June 2023 that showed 88% of people trusted the military.
He said the military’s political interference in politics is usually associated with generals and other high-ranking officers — not with common soldiers. Pakistan has one of the world’s largest militaries, with around 630,000 active-duty troops, and 150,000 members of the Frontier Corps and Rangers, according to the 2023 estimates in the CIA Factbook.
That’s why, he said, the army’s interference in politics doesn’t usually come to mind whenever the people are asked about their trust in the military, and they usually respond by keeping the military’s combat roles in mind.
The survey also probed the perceived influence of institutions on elections, with most young people asserting that no institution in Pakistan can manipulate the electoral outcome. However, among those who believe elections can be rigged, the military emerged as the institution most capable of influencing the electoral process.
International influence on the elections was also explored in the poll, revealing that one in four young people believes the United States can influence the February 8 balloting.
Some 60% of young people in Pakistan told pollsters that political leaders do not understand their issues or priorities; however that does not appear to be diminishing their interest in voting.
The survey reported 70% of respondents said they are planning to participate in the elections. Most of them also said they plan to vote for the same party they supported in the 2018 elections. About one in five of those surveyed expressed a willingness to explore alternative political options.
Approximately 17% of the surveyed youth, on the other hand, declared their decision never to vote.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political commentator and a former caretaker chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, thinks that despite distrusting the election commission, young people are likely to vote in large numbers because of effective campaigning by the political parties.
He said that in past elections, young people did not turn out in large numbers, but with the popularity of social media, he expects more to become politically engaged.
Qazi Khizar Habib, a member of Human Rights Commission Pakistan and a longtime election observer, said that in the last eight Pakistan elections, the maximum turnout has gone up to 50%.
He says that youth turnout in those elections was much lower and suspects the percentage of young people who do not plan to go to the polls is higher than 17%.
Young voter issues
Pakistan’s economy is a top concern. Last year Pakistan recorded 29% inflation, and the survey showed that inflation (cited by 70% of respondents) and poverty (cited by 59%) are the most important issues for young voters. Additionally, three out of four said religious freedom and freedom of speech are important factors when deciding who to support.
In foreign relations, the survey reported 69% of young people expressed a desire for better relations with India. The recent policy of deporting illegal Afghan refugees found support among 66% of the surveyed youth.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was identified as a valuable project for Pakistan by three out of four Pakistani youths. This widespread endorsement across all provinces indicates a consensus among the youth regarding the strategic importance of CPEC for the country's economic development and regional connectivity. VOA/SP