Strengthening Democracy: Pakistan's Electoral Roadmap For Better Political Participation

Strengthening Democracy: Pakistan's Electoral Roadmap For Better Political Participation
The population of Pakistan approximately stands at 240 million. Approximately 35% of the population can be categorised as urban. The median age stands at 20.6 years. As per the 2017 census 45% of the population was under the age of 18, which may still be +/- 3%. Hence it can be approximated that population over the age of 18 years may be around 132-135 million.

Based on the above:

  • The current electoral roll as per the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) stands at 126 million of which 54% are men and 46% women.

  • In the 2018 elections the number of missing women voters was 12 million which now appears to be 10million as per the ECP data; which can easily be projected as 10-11% given the population increase.

  • As of June 2022, the registered voters aged 18 to 25 years are 23.5 million; and for age group 26 to 35 years it is 32.6 million.

The demographic composition is at core of progressive discourse across all subject areas including future of democracy in Pakistan.

Voter turnout had a sharp increase in 2013, as it rose to 55% as against 44% of 2008. This is attributed to anti-General Musharraf regime. For the first time, the gender disaggregated data was also collected by the ECP but it was not released.

In the 2018 general election, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) focused on youth and first time voters through its proactive media strategy and use of social media platforms. In this election, the voter turnout was 51.7%.

Of the 55.9% registered male voters, 60% voted, while out of registered 44% women voters 40% voted.

This indicated increase in women voting patterns despite having approximately 12 million mission voters from the electoral roll for the 2018 general election.

Age specific voting data analysis has never been undertaken by the ECP.

Is a voter crucial to sustain democracy in Pakistan?

Voting is one of the essential and crucial tool, but it cannot be labelled as the only one. Democracy is multifaceted both as a system and practice which varies country to country. There is no one shoe fits all solution.

However, there are some essentials of electoral process that contribute to the quality of and are enablers of democracy which include:

  1. Free and fair elections

  2. All citizens having an equal opportunity to participate sans any discrimination of race,religion, ethnicity and/or gender

  3. Rule of Law (legal landscape, institutional accountability & Judiciary);

  4. Autonomy of the Election Commission/management body;

  5. Free and independent media for accurate and diverse information, holding public officials accountable, and facilitating balanced, factual and open discourse;

  6. Vibrant civil society as watch-over body and to engage citizens in the democratic process.

Beyond voting, the level of opportunity and enabling environment for political participation strengthens democracy and instill sense of ownership and responsibility.

Informing civil society about their rights as voters is expected to cultivate active engagement in the democratic and electoral processes.

Transparency and accountability mechanisms for both individual and institutions raise level of trust in the democratic system.

So what are the factors that influence voting patterns in constituency politics in Pakistan?

Historical voting patterns play a crucial role. Our politics is deeply entrenched in constituency politics that influence voter turnout on election day.

65% of Pakistan is categorised as rural area. Hence, the strength of a candidate in a constituency is not solely determined by a political party’s stronghold but by the individual standing of the candidate.

The candidate’s family, clan, tribe, position in the constituency and political relationship influence the voters more than the symbol of political party for them.

Most have branded themselves as electoral candidates in such a way that it influences a political party’s decision when it comes to the allocation of party tickets. Their strength is multiplied by the number of persons contesting and winning from the same household as the goal is to form a political bloc.

Political party loyalty is a prevalent factor in Pakistani politics. Many voters align themselves with specific parties and vote for their candidates across different elections which at national level was PML-N and PPP.

In 2018, the PTI broke their electoral vote bank not only as alternate under the slogan of change but also because of the power of electable and political households as they switched parties.

Ethnic and regional factors also come in to play to influence voting patterns across provinces and constituencies. This has been particularly evident in the political trajectories of MQM, ANP, PTM, JUI-F as these parties shape voters by their advocacy for specific ethnic or regional interests.

Voters also support candidates or parties that align with their religious beliefs or linked political ideologies and religious stances. South Punjab’s voting patterns are an example of this.

At times a candidate's personal reputation, performance, and popularity can also influence voting patterns as seen by candidates of erstwhile FATA, now NMDs. However, on the other hand we also have the cases of Jibran Nasir and Ammar Ali Jan. Despite being progressive youth leaders with integrity and a wide body of work, their voter bank has yet to translate into a win for them.

Party Manifestos are important but do they influence voting pattern?

Largely no. In a rural setting, an elected representative and voter relationship is transaction in nature. As per the Multi Dimensional Poverty (MPI) captures the severe deprivations that each person experiences with respect to education, health and standard of living.

MPI is the product of two components, one being the incidence of poverty which is the percentage of people who live in Multidimensional Poverty in Pakistan. It informs that 38% household are multi-dimensional poor and 52% people are facing the high intensity of poverty. This is core reason to perpetuate the transactional voting patterns as the ‘elected’ is the conduit to get things done.

In urban areas, economic and social issues are important yet the delivery system of repeated government indicate that it is not the manifesto but strength of the candidate and party (both individually and as collective) that deliver. The party manifesto is largely election sloganeering than the base for voting preferences.

Campaign strategies are known to sway voters but in Pakistan it is all about how much has a returning candidate delivered for the constituency and has been accessible.

Voter turnout is pursued by candidates by mobilising their supporters, providing transport, food, and in some cases cash incentives on the election day.

Women's voter turnout and preferences are critical but are influenced by men in the family that decide who to vote for and if allowed to vote.

Political parties used to make bloc and prohibit women voting which now has been checked under law; hence women voted more. However, there are areas where women are still socio-culturally not allowed to vote.

Do vote and voting patterns swing?

Voting patterns are complex and multifaceted, varying from one constituency to another. Factors that influence voting in one area may not hold the same significance in another. A significant shift in voter preferences from one political party or candidate to another can occur for various reasons and can be influenced by a combination of factors which are:

1. Changes in the prevailing political, economic, or social landscape that either attracts or repels a voter bringing a change in voting preference.

2.The popularity and credibility of political leadership and of prospective candidates can influence voting patterns. Pakistani politics is personality politics and charismatic leaders pull vote for their party and candidates. Examples include the landslide of victory of PMLN in 1997, PPP in 2008 and PTI in 2018.

3. Performance in office is an important indicator but it is linked to the prevailing following of the political party’s leadership.

4. The state of the economy can significantly influence voting patterns. Lets see if it can become the point to sway voter.

5. High-profile scandals or controversies involving a political party or candidate can erode public trust and lead to a swing of votes away from them.

6. Shifting demographics, such as changes in the age distribution or ethnic composition of the population, also impacts voting patterns as different groups may have varying political preferences. This can be seen more at provincial level.

7. Role of mainstream media and social media largely influences voters' perceptions and sway their votes.

Does the youth has the power to influence the upcoming general election? If yes what should we focus on?

Political participation of the youth in the electoral and political processes can help influence not only voting patterns but can also bring focus to their issues in political discourse.

Young people have globally played central and catalysing roles in movements for democracy through voting and party activism (

As of 2016 people between the ages of 20 and 44 make up 57% of the world’s voting age population but only 26% of the world’s Members of Parliament (MPs).

Young people under 30 only represent 1.9% of the world’s MPs and more than 80% of the world’s upper houses of Parliament have no MPs aged under 30.

Youth political participation has significantly increased in digital mediums in Pakistan post general election 2013. This is linked to the popularity of different social mediums that encompass all income groups consisting of both urban and rural areas.

On one hand it can be taken as an indicator of an effort to be inclusive and youth participation in democratic processes but on the other it has become conduit of misinformation, hate speech and contempt for electoral/political processes and politicians.

The PTI captured this space substantially causing online polarisation and abuse to affect offline spaces. The ECP should develop a structured online communication strategy targeting voter education for youth and encouraging youth participation to safeguard electoral, political integrity and civic space form disinformation and hate speech having the potential to result in electoral violence.

Therefore, it is significantly assumed that politically engaged youth can also significantly impact election outcomes. However, there is no data that establishes it in Pakistan.

This is because the ECP, the custodian of the voter turn out data, does not release age-wise voting turn out to gauge a pattern. In the absence of such data and any nationwide credible survey our assumptions will be dependent on anecdotal evidence. Can it be done? Yes, with the help of NADRA this can be managed and released as part of General Election Report.

Meaningful political participation of youth is not about election day. It’s about understanding the political history of Pakistan, progressive democratic norms, electoral processes, political parties, functioning of the democratic institutions and role of allied stakeholders, both positive and negative.

It cannot and should not be left alone on the activism of the political parties, which is the case at the moment. Each political party influences voting pattern as per its own ideology and interest.

We are fifth most populous country in the world and while our youth voter is diverse, we do not have same political choices, priorities or leanings as generations before us did.

Consequently, it is essential that we recognise the diverse perspectives within the youth demographics while encouraging political participation is essential. Communication efforts with youth should start with the understanding that young people are not a monolithic entity.

Therefore, all engagement must be broad in its outreach approach considering there are different groups and experiences e.g. urban-rural, gender, social, cultural, ethnic and religious cleavages.

Youth engagement has the potential to shape the political narratives. Access to and provision of accurate and unbiased information about candidates, parties, electoral processes can facilitate young voters to make informed decisions. In fact, the youth may be more likely to engage in a constructive manner if they feel well-informed about the choices available to them.

The Constitution needs to be part of curriculum from primary school onwards and while this has been approved by the Federal and Provincial governments, there is a need to push it out to implement it.

This will not only educate our young population but will also instill democratic norms in the thought process of future voters that will in-turn will propagate equality, equity, transparency and accountability of electoral and political processes, legislation policies and implementation.

The interactions that young people have with their parents, teachers, schools and communities has the potential to draw attention to both upcoming issues and influence long-held political opinions.

It is important to invest in both off and online spaces using old and new ways to encourage youth to participate in democracy. Timely registration of young voters (those who have turned 18) and women in particular is a lynchpin.

The reasons being the registering as a voter is not automatic and has to be done by the individual by applying to the ECP. Women may not always be able to register and consequently, approximately 10 million women voters of age are still not part of the current electoral roll.

Social media and online resources are key tools in enhancing youth participation and helping to educate young people on civic values, ethics and responsibilities. Majority of youth is actively engaged in opining on politics at social media platforms.

However, its marred by inauthentic, biased and vile content. Increasing media literacy among young people is important to counter online mis/disinformation. People should be educated and informed about the tactics using algorithms to influence them online, and build narratives, in order to counter the long-term impacts of extreme polarisation and political apathy.

The younger lot must also be made to understand that voting is not a right alone. It’s a responsibility because a vote lasts a decade and it indirectly it empowers directly elected representatives to elects Senators and the President.

Future governments will need to invest in a dedicated communication strategy, social media literacy and fake news busters. The ECP would need to invest in online tools to educate the youth so that their informed voices are part of the discourse.

Simultaneously, there is also the need to consider mechanisms that can address threats of disinformation, manipulation and polarisation. This requires a whole new thinking and communication paradigm at the institutional level.

Political parties need to have digital communication strategies and educate their youth members in electoral processes, digital literacy and ethics rather than using them as online warriors of hate and misinformation.

This will help in having a team of informed and trained polling agents that can protect their interest on the election day. The ECP also can engage, educate and train university students as volunteers to assist polling staff on the election day in election duties.

Political parties also have a crucial role to play. They have to involve people beyond their respective youth wing and social media campaigners. There is a need to establish open access to party structures, elected representatives and local leadership to inform, dialogue and mentor youth. Encouraging youth participation in at the level of local governments is key to this effect as it has direct and tangible impact on communities. Local issues can be particularly relevant and motivating for young voters.

The edifice of democracy rests on electoral and political participation to make sure that there is voice and accountability for all participating in it. In Pakistan we constantly complain (thanks to mainstream media) as to how our political climate is bad, worsening day by day and that our politicians are corrupt. It never talks of the sacrifices that politicians have mad to regain the civilian supremacy from martial regimes.

Our youth need to be informed and educated to realise the political processes as of today. The opportunity to make things better is always there and informed voting is key to it as each vote counts. Young people’s enthusiasm and political engagement can be an important driver for change, especially when channeled through participatory methods that combine their passion with the education, informed discoursed and experience of electoral-political stakeholders and decision makers.