Survey Politics and the Representation of the ‘Youth’

Apr 2013

Last week the British Council released a report entitled “The Next Generation Goes to the Ballot Box”. The report focused on the Pakistani ‘youth’–those aged between 18 and 29 years (two-thirds of Pakistanis have yet to reach their 30th birthday)–in the run-up to the 2013 election. On the basis of the research, the news media reported that the Pakistani youth were “pessimistic about [the] future” and that the Pakistani “youth favor Sharia Over Democracy”. Alia Amirali, the secretary general of the left-wing National Students Federation, gives us her take on the British Council survey.

Much has been made of the British Council survey released last week, which has ‘revealed’ that the Pakistani ‘youth’ prefers Shariah and military rule to democracy. For my part, it has only served to increase my skepticism of opinion polls and surveys (particularly those funded/administered by donors and large NGOs) which seek to ‘reveal’–and inevitably represent–people’s political leanings and attitudes.

First off, I find it unsurprising that young people are unhappy with the current state of affairs (which should not be considered coterminous with a disaffection with democracy alone). It is hardly difficult to see why young people complain about the prevailing state of affairs in a country where inflation, unemployment and insecurity are on the rise, and have been on the rise for much longer than just the past five years. So, it is rather unexceptional to reveal that people consider the outgoing government responsible for their woes. If anything, the expression of discontent with the prevailing state of affairs– regardless of who the target of people’s disaffection is–is reflective of the presence and relative health of a political culture, rather than something that should cast such deep suspicion on it.

Second, it is equally unexceptional that a particular class of ‘youth’ surveyed (and quoted extensively in the written section of the report), namely urban middle-class youth in the cities, are expressing a distaste for democracy in particular (and not just with the state of affairs). This political trend has become a hallmark of urban middle-class political inclination in this country over the last decade in particular, and is hardly cause for alarm now any more than it has been in the past. The irony is that it is this very class that upholds Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf–a party which had built its image as a technocratic, professionalized (almost to the extent of being anti-political), modern yet rooted and morally upright harbinger of change–and is actively campaigning (a very political act, if I may add) for his party in the upcoming elections. The British Council survey itself states that while only 14% of the surveyed population supported civilian rule/democracy, as many as 60% also said they would cast their vote in the upcoming elections (and an additional 10% said they could be convinced to do so). These statistics alone should be sufficient to put to rest the cries about the ‘impending death of democracy’ and ‘erosion of legitimacy’ that have emerged in the wake of this survey. 

The report’s point of departure is problematic. It lumps the ‘youth’ into one, undifferentiated mass. As a result, the report falls into a typical pitfall within quantitative research–trying to find the average opinion of a group that is far from homogenous (the report claims that this “generation speaks with one voice”–a questionable claim given that half the country is under 20, and two-thirds have yet to reach their 30th birthday. That is a lot of people to average out). A young Baloch from Turbat is more like his elder than he is like a young student from Lahore. The report also admits that areas in conflict–from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and Balochistan–were under-represented because of lack of access. They are also statistically smaller, meaning the opinions of those from Pakistan’s peripheries could disappear in the opinion of the ‘national voice of the youth’. Lumping Pakistan’s youth into the same group produces results that, at best, tell us nothing, and at worst, mislead us.

Even if we take the report’s claim at face value–namely that they carried out a “nationally representative survey”–the written section of the report seems to spend a lot of time focusing on the urban middle-class youth and the urban unemployed. For instance, it spends two chapters on “Next Generation Voices”, but mostly quote people from urban areas. One page lists quotes answering the question, “Do you think the next generation can shape Pakistan’s future?” All of those quoted come from Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Lahore, except for one token quote from Tank, Dera Ismail Khan. This can paint an incredibly skewed picture, especially since the report notes that 74% of Pakistan comes from the lower classes. A simple deduction would lead us to conclude that almost three-fourths of Pakistan’s youth come from this class, and given that birth rates in rural and lower class families are most likely higher, it might be an even higher proportion.

To represent the views of this particular societal cross-section as the ‘general opinion’ of the Pakistani ‘youth’ is objectionable, and misleading. I would be inclined to think that a much more ‘revealing’ survey would have included a comparison of the political leanings of this cross-section of the ‘youth’ with the 18-29 year olds in the peripheral-rural areas, which comprise the demographic majority of the ‘youth’ in any case. Even within the sample of the urban ‘youth’, the survey would have done well to ‘reveal’ any observed differences between the responses of the working-class youth and the relatively educated, and struggling yet upwardly mobile middle-class youth of the cities.

The questions that the survey seems to have asked also serve to confound rather than clarify. It would be naïve to think that the Pakistani youth (or anyone, for that matter) has a unitary definition of “Shariah”. So when a young supporter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan says he wants Shariah, and a young female student at the International Islamic University in Islamabad says she wants Shariah, they probably have a very different understanding of the same word or concept.

It also makes little sense to divorce the ‘youth’s’ support for the military from their experience of it. The army has historically siphoned off resources from Pakistan’s peripheries, and invested it in the center. Population explosions in the center can throw off the perception of the army. Speaking of army support independent of this context makes little sense.

My own experience of organizing students, both in the cities and in the smaller towns and peripheral districts of Punjab, shows me a picture that is quite contrary to the one painted by the British Council survey. Rather than being as cynical or wholly detached from the political process as we are led to expect by such surveys, I find that a relatively larger section of the peripheral ‘youth’ is actually afflicted with the ‘election fever’ that grips all kinds of spaces–small towns to big cities–every time elections come around (and this is despite having been failed time and again by incoming civilian and military governments). Though it is important to be equally nuanced about the political leanings of the peripheral ‘youth’, for there is plenty of complexity and differentiation in political behavior there too (based on class and caste in particular), I find many more young people in the small towns (of Punjab at least) talking about who to support, and taking part in electoral campaigns as compared to the middle-class youth in big cities.

Moreover, to the extent that you can speak of a unitary definition for Shariah, and the military, it is indeed a legitimacy that has been garnered over many decades. Democracy has historically been the scapegoat for people’s disaffections, and it is all the more easy to hold the government to blame for all existing ills when an elected civilian government is in power and moreover heading towards the end of its term. I would be interested in seeing these surveys being conducted during military rule or Shariah rule, or in places where armed groups have informally taken over the role of the state such as certain parts of FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and in which the samples are not skewed in favor of the dominant cross-sections of society. Balochistan is a case in point, where this survey poll was released almost simultaneously with news of the government’s decision to ban the Baloch Students Organization-Azad, one of the most vibrant, active, and widely-supported student organizations in Balochistan. Had the poll ventured outside of the metropolitan centers and included the Balochistani youth–and the Baloch youth in particular, which has been systematically abducted, tortured, mutilated, and terrorized by none other than the Pakistan Army–I seriously doubt that this survey would have been able to claim that the “generation that speaks with one voice” sees 77% support of the army (or Shariah for that matter).

If nothing else, this survey at least serves as a reminder that we should take opinion polls and fact-finding surveys with a pinch of salt. Rather than being swept along in the alarmism of ‘growing fundamentalism’ and ‘flailing democracy’ and whatnot that is being raised in its wake, it may be more instructive to pay some attention to the methodology and purpose of these surveys and their initiators, rather than jump to conclusions about the ‘youth’ they claim to represent.

Alia Amirali is a political activist, and the general secretary of the National Students Federation (NSF), a left-wing federation of students committed to the revival of left politics in Pakistan.


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One Response to Survey Politics and the Representation of the ‘Youth’

  1. […] Pakistan is ready for democracy or not have been prevalent for decades. The latest example is a British Council survey that claimed to find that Pakistani youth were disenchanted with democracy is a case in […]

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