A larger number of young Pakistanis believe the country should be governed by Islamic law or military rule rather than democracy, according to a survey released Wednesday, weeks before historic national elections.
Pakistan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on May 11 — the first transition between democratically elected governments in a country that has experienced three military coups and constant political instability since its creation in 1947. The parliament's ability to complete its five-year term has been hailed as a significant achievement.
But a survey by the British Council found that young Pakistanis — defined as those between the ages of 18 and 29 — have grown more pessimistic about the future over this period, as the country has struggled with a weak economy, high inflation, pervasive energy shortages and a deadly Taliban insurgency.
About 94 percent of young Pakistanis believe the country is going in the wrong direction, compared with 86 percent in 2009, the study found. Less than a quarter believe democracy has benefited themselves or their families.
Given these figures, it is perhaps not surprising to find relatively low levels of support for democracy among the youth. Only 29 percent of young Pakistanis believe democracy is the best political system for the country, according to the poll.
"Look at this government that just completed its term. What did it give to people?" Waseem Qureshi, a 24-year-old call center worker in Islamabad, told The Associated Press. "You keep looting national wealth, and you tell us to bear with it because it's democracy."
Many Pakistanis have an extremely low opinion of the country's politicians, who they often view as more interested in earning money through corruption than dealing with problems facing ordinary citizens.
Qureshi said Islamic law, or Shariah, would be better suited for Pakistan. Around 38 percent of young Pakistanis agreed with him, according to the poll, a reflection of the deeply held religious views of many young people in the majority Muslim country.
Military rule also came out ahead of democracy, with 32 percent support, despite the turbulent history of the army toppling civilian governments in coups. The survey found that the army enjoys much higher levels of support among people, 77 percent, than the civilian government, 14 percent.
"Military rule is better than democracy, at least compared to what we have experienced in recent times," Uzair Bashir, a 20-year-old university student in the southern city of Karachi, told the AP.
He cited the era of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, left Pakistan in self-imposed exile in 2008 and recently returned to the country to run in elections.
"During his rule youngsters had job opportunities, security was far better than today, economic conditions were good and there was less inflation," said Bashir.
The three forms of government in the survey were offered as distinct choices, although in theory, Islamic law could be implemented in conjunction with either democracy or military rule.
Despite having a relatively low opinion of democracy, Pakistan's bulging youth population could be influential in the upcoming election. More than 30 percent of registered voters, or more than 25 million, are between the ages of 18 and 29, and many will be voting for the first time, the report said.
Many young Pakistanis have been drawn to former cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has railed against the country's traditional political parties as bastions of corruption. His message has hit a chord, especially among the urban middle class, but the question is whether he can motivate young people to show up at the polls.
Around 60 percent of young people plan to vote, while another 10 percent said they could still be persuaded to turn out, the survey said.
High inflation, unemployment and poverty are three of the most important issues for young Pakistanis — just one in 10 are in stable employment. Many are also concerned with education, health care, terrorism, corruption and energy and water shortages.
Young people actually identified democracy as the best system for economic growth, while Shariah was better for upholding morality, and military rule for providing security, the survey said.
"The costs of failing to harness the energies of youth are high," the report said. "If young people are starved of opportunities, they can wreak havoc on any society, turning a demographic dividend into a demographic disaster."
Pakistan is running out of time to give young people the education and jobs needed to take advantage of this demographic dividend. By mid-century, the proportion of workers in the population will be falling and the country will be aging fast, making it harder to care for growing numbers of elderly, the report said, warning that the country could be one of the first ever to grow old before it has grown rich.
"Far from collecting its demographic dividend, Pakistan continues to advance further down the road to demographic disaster," the report said. "The next generation is increasingly gripped by a profound feeling of helplessness and young people do not feel in control of their own destinies."
The British Council survey was carried out by talking to more than 5,000 young Pakistanis in December 2012 and January 2013. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent.
Associated Press writers Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan, and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.