Wild card in the polls

Could young voters prove to be a driver of change in Pakistan?

On May 11, Pakistan will choose its representatives for the next five years. Two hundred and seventy two National Assembly seats will be contested, and the parties themselves will allocate an additional 60 seats reserved for women and 10 reserved for non-Muslims.

Few elections in Pakistan have generated so much speculation, both domestically and abroad. Parties across the political spectrum celebrated the fact that a democratically-elected government has finally completed a full term in office in Pakistan, but their satisfaction quickly gave way to fierce competition that could end the quasi-monopoly of the two mainstream parties, the ruling centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and opposition centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and witness the emergence of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former cricketer Imran Khan.

But it's still unclear how the election will play out. Social and ethnic cleavages, grassroots party mobilisation and a general disillusion with politics are all potential wild cards, but no factor is more important than the demographic transition currently under way. Out of the 84 million people expected to cast their votes on May 11, almost half (47.8 per cent) are between 18 and 35 years of age. Many of them will be voting for the first time. Described as more educated and better connected to the world than their parents but also as deeply conservative this generation could well be a driver of serious change, although no opinion polls have so far assessed how this might translate into support for particular political actors.

Polls conducted by various organisations show different results and considerable inconsistencies, but the PML-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems poised to emerge as the single-largest party and to form the next government, while the PPP looks destined to return to the opposition bench. A small slate of religious parties seems unlikely to secure a share of the vote that could seriously change the outcome, so the real uncertainty lies with the PTI and its ability to capture the traditional voter base of the two mainstream parties. Although polls show a decline of support for the PTI since the beginning of the campaign, it would be a mistake to rule out surprises. There is little doubt that Pakistan is heading towards another coalition government.

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