10 reasons why this Pakistan election is a game-changer

On May 11, 90 million Pakistanis will vote in general elections that will highlight the major political, social and demographic changes that have taken place in the country over the past decade amidst increasing violence.
A girl walks in the old part of Lahore decorated with pre-election posters. The so-called 'youth bulge' has dramatically changed the demographic makeup of Pakistani society, and a staggering 40 million Pakistanis will be eligible to vote for the first time in the May 11 elections. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters )

On May 11, 90 million Pakistanis will vote in general elections that will highlight the major political, social and demographic changes that have taken place in the country over the past decade amidst increasing violence.

Thousands of Pakistanis have been killed as a result of extremist violence and political upheaval since the country was thrust into the U.S. war on terror after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And the makeup of both the voting population and the country's political power base have changed dramatically in recent years.

CBC News looks at the political, social and demographic factors that are likely to influence Saturday’s election, and its winner.  

The numbers game

The so-called "youth bulge" has dramatically changed the demographic makeup of Pakistani society. A staggering 40 million Pakistanis will be eligible to vote for the first time in the upcoming elections.  

Sixty five per cent of the country’s 180 million people are below 30 years of age. Many are illiterate and without jobs, and the majority of them now live in either urban or suburban rather than rural areas.

A combination of factors, from natural disasters and violence to economic change, have been driving rural residents into more urbanized areas. Nearly 50 per cent of Pakistan's population now lives in towns with at least 5,000 people; that’s up from 30 per cent a decade ago.

But this demographic shift is not represented in the political arena, where feudal landholders still hold much control. The youth and urban votes could mean a dramatic change in the balance of power in Pakistan politics.

Rising conservatism

High unemployment, illiteracy and a lack of economic growth have combined to make Pakistani society — and especially youth — generally anti-secular and cynical about western constitutionalism.  

recent study by the British Council in Pakistan showed most people younger than 30 preferred the Islamic Sharia system of governance to the democratic system.  

More than half of the 18-to-29-year-olds polled said democracy had not been good for them or the country. In fact, 70 per cent said they preferred military rule and only 13 per cent of respondents indicated they preferred civilian rule.  

The army, Americans and Afghanistan

Pakistan's military and civilian leadership is fearful of violence spilling over the border as more than 100,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, leave Afghanistan in 2014.  

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Ahmed Rashid, author of Pakistan on the Brink, told the CBC that, "the army is concerned once Americans leave, attacks by the Pakistani Taliban will rise."  

Even so, Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. has been a troubled one in recent years. The unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in northern Pakistan in May 2011 has created more anti-American sentiment.  

According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2010-11, more than 40,000 Pakistanis have been killed since 2002 and the government has spent more than $67 billion US on the fight against Islamist insurgents.  

The military needs political backing at home to execute its post-U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The election results will determine if the army gets the support it wants.  

Taliban movement

In the past three weeks, at least 117 political activists have been killed in targeted attacks attributed to the Pakistani Taliban.  

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Pashtun-centric Awami National Party (ANP) are all on the Taliban hit list because they are seen as being "secular." The Taliban says democracy and secularism are against Islam, and that they will kill anyone who promotes such "anti-Islamic values."  

There is no political consensus on how to deal with the Taliban in Pakistan. Some groups have called for a military solution, while others — like cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan — want to negotiate with Taliban fighters.  

Any political group that comes to power will have to form a national consensus on how to deal with Pakistan’s Taliban movement.  

Independent media and judiciary

Media organizations have witnessed a decade of dramatic growth since former president Pervez Musharraf allowed private networks to operate. Now, popular television hosts reflect on the national mood and determine what constitutes news. So far, the media has acted as a powerful counterbalance to entrenched political and religious forces.  

The judiciary, too, has allowed for independent mechanisms to be put in place to check corruption and provide oversight. Judges have taken on corruption cases against politicians, but also against army generals accused of poll-rigging the 1990 elections and various financial irregularities. Musharraf's return to Pakistan, for example, has been eclipsed by his house arrest.

The growing power of the media and judiciary promises to have a notable influence on how the new government conducts its affairs.  

Imran Khan

"This is the battle for your future," said Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, from a hospital bed in Lahore on May 8th. He was addressing thousands of supporters in Islamabad, trying to galvanize support days before people go to the polls.  

Khan received 12 stitches after falling off a rising lifter next to a stage at a political rally that same day. Aside from recovering from his injuries, Pakistan’s most revered sportsman-turned-politician is in a do-or-die battle for his political future.  

Khan has been campaigning hard, addressing up to five political events every day, and his poll numbers have been rising.   His growing political popularity springs from the public image of him already sewn deep into the Pakistani psyche. He won Pakistan its only Cricket World Cup while suffering from a back injury, and succeeded in building the country’s first cancer hospital.    

But to many people, Khan also represents everything that is wrong with Pakistan. They say he is a Taliban sympathizer — "Taliban Khan" — and that he is a front for the army to bring its regional vision to a larger audience.

He has also spoken out against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Khan’s insistence on holding the western occupation of Afghanistan responsible for the violence in Pakistan and his wish to talk to the Taliban for peace has fueled further criticism.  

Still, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters are hoping Imran Khan will be the person to "rid Pakistan of corruption and clean up the system," as he has promised at every campaign stop.  

The old guard

People were optimistic when Pakistan held democratic elections in March 2008, after a decade of military rule. There was hope the politicians would chart a new course for the country, maybe even disengage from the U.S. and end Pakistan’s involvement with the U.S. war on terror.  

Five years later, Pakistan's economy is in ruins. Some $94 billion has been lost to corruption, tax evasion and bad governance, according to Transparency International, which monitors growth in developing countries.  

Critics hold old political forces responsible. President Asif Ali Zardari is considered a master of political survival, but his Pakistan Peoples Party has failed at governance, says Shaheen Sehbai, a senior journalist and editor of the News daily.

There is immense resentment for the past five years. the hatred for the peoples party government is evident in the lack of interest over the armed kidnapping of Ali Haider Gilani, the youngest son of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. He is said to be held by fighters affiliated with the Lashkar e Jhangvi.

The country’s main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League headed by Nawaz Sharif, stands a good chance of winning a majority in Parliament, but its chances have been dampened by Imran Khan’s PTI party.

A highlight at Nawaz Sharif’s election rallies has been the display of a rare white tiger, standing in as party mascot. But in an incident that some have suggested is a sign of the party's fortunes, the election symbol died Monday after being exposed to hot and noisy rallies.  

With people preparing to go to the polls and little time left to campaign, most analysts are predicting a hung parliament, in which no party will have the required votes to form a government. If such an eventuality does come to pass, it would mean more political uncertainty for Pakistan.

Canadian connection

On Jan. 14, influential cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri led thousands of supporters to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, calling for the government to be dismissed.  

Speaking to a crowd of protesters, Qadri — a Pakistani-Canadian — warned the Pakistani government to "dissolve assemblies immediately or face the people's wrath," insisting it set up a "neutral caretaker setup before elections."  

This didn’t happen. The cleric agreed to call off the protest after reaching a symbolic deal with the government he had set out to remove. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s religious support has not translated to political backing so far.

On May 8 the cleric went public again, calling on his followers to boycott the elections and stage peaceful sit ins outside polling stations. The cleric has repeatedly called on the army to step in to ‘save the country from corrupt politicians.’

But constitutional expert Babar Sattar says this is not possible in the current circumstance. He says, ‘the army doesn’t have the institutional appetite for another military coup,’ which could affect its influence over the elected government.


Pakistan’s military has been engaged in a brutal war with separatist groups in Balochistan province, in the South West of the country, for almost a decade.  

Several thousand people have disappeared throughout the province, with rights groups accusing the army of atrocities.

Meanwhile, about 220 Shia Hazara were killed in multiple bombings across Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, earlier this year, and around 800 Shia Muslims have been murdered in Balochistan since 2008, according to the government. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has claimed responsibility for most of these attacks.  

Ali Dayan Hasan, HRW’s Pakistan director says, "The government was unable or unwilling to break the links between Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies with extremist groups. Sunni militant groups, including those with known links to the Pakistani military, its intelligence agencies, and affiliated paramilitaries, such as the ostensibly banned Lashkar-e Jhangvi, operated openly across Pakistan, as law enforcement officials turned a blind eye to attacks."  

A new government will have to tackle sectarian violence in the province while pushing for political reconciliation. In order to do so, leaders may have to reduce the military’s presence in Balochistan.

India and Kashmir

Concerns on its Western front shrink in comparison when it comes to Pakistan’s East.

The killing of Pakistani soldiers along the disputed line of control in Kashmir earlier this year reinforced Pakistan’s worst fears of Indian hegemony.  

Kashmir is at the core of Pakistani military establishment’s decision-making process – the army has exclusive policy rights on Kashmir. It calls the shots. "All roads lead to Kashmir" is a popular rallying call for army men. Pakistan’s military has promoted the idea of strategic depth in Afghanistan because of concerns over perceived Indian military supremacy.  

The border killings revealed deep resentment in Pakistan, stoking fears of war in certain military quarters. In order to counterbalance its military shortcomings vis-à-vis India, the Pakistan army has patronized many Salafist groups at home.  

An integral part of this Salafist movement are violent Sunni groups such as the Lashkar e Jhangvi. Saudi patronage and funding has been essential in the growth of these groups.  

Kashmir has set the agenda for the India-Pakistan relationship since 1948. Now Pakistani leaders will have to look at that agenda for the sake of peace.