Rock the vote? Pakistan's politicians court a younger crowd.

As a crucial vote for Pakistan's new civilian government looms, candidates are trying to sway a sizable and politically active generation – but one whose sentiments are unclear.

Fareed Khan/AP
Pakistani students gather in a corridor of Karachi University, during a break from their classes, in Karachi, Pakistan, April 3. When asked which system of government they preferred, 29 percent of young Pakistanis between the ages of 18 and 29 said they would prefer democracy as a political system; 38 percent picked 'Islamic sharia'; and 32 percent picked 'military rule.'

As Pakistan prepares to vote for a new civilian government, many are closely watching the 25 million-strong youth population – 60 percent of whom have promised to make their way to the ballot box on May 11. 

But how their growing clout will shape the next government is unclear. Pakistan's young people are losing confidence in the democratic system, according to a British Council study out earlier this month, with roughly similar percentages expressing support for sharia (Islamic law) or military rule as express support for democracy.

While this has some observers worried, analysts are quick to caution that the survey results should not be taken at face value.

“We need to dig deeper and ask more intelligent questions. For example, what do they mean when they say 'Islamic sharia'? For a lot of people, sharia refers to equality, justice, a welfare state, and support for the poor and downtrodden. It does not equal putting the mullahs [Islamic clergy] in power,” says Khawar Ghumman, a political analyst and journalist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. Mr. Ghumman says that it makes little sense to see sharia and democracy as mutually exclusive categories.

Definitions matter

When asked which system of government they preferred, 29 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 said they would prefer democracy as a political system; 38 percent picked “Islamic sharia”; and 32 percent picked “military rule.” 

But, as Alia Amirali, the secretary-general of the National Students Federation and a seasoned left-wing student activist, notes, “both a supporter of the Pakistan Taliban and a female student at the International Islamic University in Islamabad might say that they prefer Islamic sharia as a system, but they probably have two very different definitions of the same concept.” 

Ms. Amirali points out that the survey indicates as many as 70 percent of young Pakistanis might vote in the elections – a data point that reveals a politically active generation.

“That alone should put to rest the cries about the 'impending death of democracy' and the 'erosion of legitimacy' that have emerged,” says Amirali.

In fact, many of Pakistan’s political parties seem to be scrambling for – and counting on –  the youth vote.

During the launch of his party's election manifesto in Islamabad earlier this month, Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Road to Justice party, claimed that his party would take home the bulk of young people's 25 million votes. The party has a popular reputation for appealing to the younger generation.

Mr. Khan, a former cricketer and relative newcomer to Pakistani politics, is known for political rallies that have attracted 250,000 people. His party is also known for its young, die-hard supporters (or jiyalas in Urdu) on Facebook and Twitter – and their tendency to harass anyone who criticizes the PTI.

In a sign of solidarity, Khan made sure that 35 percent of his party's slots were given to candidates under the age of 35. Political parties in Pakistan select candidates through central parliamentary boards, rather than holding primaries.

But youth activist Abdullah Dayo from the Progressive Youth Forum, an independent student activist group, suspects that Khan will get far less support from youths than he hopes for when the votes are tallied.

“You have to remember that there is a huge difference between young Pakistanis in the country's rural, peri-urban and urban areas. Khan has a lot of support among the urban youth, but far less outside of the country's large metropolitan centers,” says Mr. Dayo, who just toured 13 districts in Sindh Province earlier this month, where he estimates that the PTI will fail to make any substantial gains in National Assembly seats.

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