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imageISLAMABAD: In a bustling market in a middle-class district of Islamabad, Raja Mehran rallies his friends as they prepare to campaign door-to-door for Pakistan's general election on Saturday.

The wiry 22-year-old is one of an estimated 25 million voters aged under 30 who are expected to play a decisive role in the poll, marking the first democratic handover of power after a civilian government has served a full term.

The rapid rise over the past two years of former cricket star Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party has shifted the attention of other mainstream politicians towards the young.

The PTI has preached a gospel of change, pledging to break the old structures of politics, giving 35 percent of its party tickets to under-35s and promising young people the chance to build a "new Pakistan".

In a country where entry into politics traditionally depends on family ties and patronage, the appeal of this message is obvious. Mehran the student activist has heard it and is a believer.

"This is the only party which is giving tickets to youth, which actually makes them representatives of this nation," he told AFP.

"If I try hard, if I work hard for this party and for this country, definitely I can be one day prime minister of Pakistan, or any boy like me can be the prime minister of Pakistan."

It is uncertain how far the PTI's message will penetrate beyond the educated urban centres of Punjab, the country's richest province, or even whether Imran Khan can translate his huge popularity into seats in parliament.

Some youngsters are unconvinced, saying that while Khan is charismatic, he lacks the experience of Nawaz Sharif, the two-time prime minister who leads the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and is tipped to emerge on top.

"I support PML-N because the leadership qualities are there," Adnan Latif, 19, a student in the southwestern city of Quetta, told AFP.

"Imran Khan is a nice person but he doesn't know about the very difficult circumstances we have here in Pakistan, so I don't understand why you would hand these responsibilities to him."

Regardless of the outcome, columnist and political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi said the PTI had shifted the political discourse, forcing more of a focus on young people.

"It's already made a difference -- the rhetoric of every single party is according to the idea that the majority of Pakistanis are below 25," he told AFP.

"Politicians need to find a way to engage with, excite and sustain interest in these parties among young people."

Khan burst into the political limelight with a huge rally in Pakistan's second largest city Lahore in late 2011.

Since then the PML-N, which controls Lahore, has given scholarships and free laptops to students and built a metro-bus public transport system in the city in double-quick time.

Newspaper campaign adverts by the Pakistan People's Party -- which led the outgoing ruling coalition -- this week have compared the age of Nawaz, 63, and Imran, 60, with that of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the party's 24-year-old chairman -- still four months away from being old enough to stand.

"Only young leadership can bring a revolution. Only a leader who truly personifies and understands the spirit and aspirations of the new generation can shape a new future," the PPP advert says.

But analysts warn that none of the major parties offers realistic policies to take advantage of Pakistan's rapidly growing young population, and the country could be heading for a demographic disaster.

A British Council report last month cautioned that not enough was being done to train the young in the skills needed to make Pakistan competitive.

"Nor have young people been systematically engaged as active citizens and future leaders, despite sporadic efforts to bring a new generation to the forefront of political and economic life," the report said.

It also found deep pessimism among voters aged 18 to 29. An overwhelming 96 percent of those surveyed said the country was heading in the wrong direction and just 29 percent chose democracy as the best system.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2013


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