Young Pakistanis are making headlines as they increase their involvement in Pakistan’s democratic political process, taking the reins from an older generation of politicians and government officials. Sherhbano Taseer, the 20-something daughter of Salmaan Taseer who was assassinated earlier this year, has received considerable attention for speaking out for justice and tolerance in Pakistan. But Ms. Taseer is not the only young Pakistani who is devoting her life to public service and the cause of strengthening democracy and justice in Pakistan.
First elected to parliament at the age of 25, Hina Rabbani Khar was last week was sworn in as Pakistan’s youngest and first female Minister for Foreign Affairs. Despite her seemingly young age – she is 34 – Hina Rabbani Khar is 13 years older than the median age in Pakistan. She arrived in Delhi today for talks with her Indian counterpart.
In a profession dominated by seasoned diplomats and older political professionals, Hina Rabbani stands out. But Pakistani journalist Huma Yusuf suggests that rather than a liability, Hina Khar’s youth is an asset for strengthening democracy in Pakistan.
In strong democracies, young politicians are valued for their stamina, gumption and for their ability to mobilise and motivate other youngsters. It is high time that Pakistan, with its youth bulge, caught on to the trend.
The next young Pakistani to make headlines was Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and present Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Yesterday, English-language daily The Express Tribune reported that Bilawal will compete in Pakistan’s 2013 elections, a claim subsequently rejected by Bilawal himself on Twitter. Pakistani political junkies have long speculated about not how, but when Bilawal would enter politics. It appears they had the equation backwards.
According to a report in April, Bilawal is not interested in assuming the mantle of politics as part of a political dynasty.
“Bilawal has specifically expressed interest in the party’s youth wing, which was very dear to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto,” [PPP spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani] said. “He will be looking into modernising the Peoples Youth Organisation, and bringing in new ideas, media technology etc through intellectual and practical exercises.”
Bilawal, who turns 23 this September, is two years away from being eligible to run for a provincial or national assembly seat. However, the PPP believes that the idea is not for Bilawal to jump into politics by contesting elections, but to spend time learning about the party.
“He is a keen learner,” said Ispahani. “He has spent time travelling here and meeting party leaders and members. He listens and he takes his time with making comments on issues.”
At 23, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has spent recent years outside the world of politics, concentrating on completing his studies as Oxford University. Earlier this year, though, he did make a notable public appearance when he gave an unflinching speech in response to the assassination of Salmaan Taseer – at the time a rare show of defiance in the face of terrorist threats, and a demonstration of a courage of conviction largely missing from older political figures.
“To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,” he said at a memorial ceremony in London for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was killed by his own security guard last week.
“Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.”
Of course, how Bilawal’s political career proceeds – if he even chooses to have one – remains to be seen. But cynicism aside, Bilawal deserves credit for approaching politics from the path of a public servant, and not a dynastic heir.
Americans can appreciate the desire of young adults to serve their country. First elected to Congress when he was only 29 years old, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States at 43 – less than 10 years older than Hina Khar. Current Vice President Joe Biden was first elected to the US Senate at 29 – he had to wait until his 30th birthday to take the oath of office. When Barack Obama entered the White House, he brought not only a youthful spirit, but a group of public servants the New York Times dubbed, “the Obama 20-Somethings.”
However the political careers of Hina Rabbani Khar, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and other young Pakistanis pan out, it is encouraging to see young people in Pakistan taking up the work of strengthening democracy and justice in their country. The next chapter in Pakistan’s history will be written by their youth. They deserve our support.