There are over one hundred million eligible voters in Pakistan who could vote. But many have not registered and of those who have, many will not turn up to vote. In actual fact, only some 40  to 45 percent of eligible voters will vote. This year, however, we can hope for a higher participation than five years ago when 44.5 percent of registered voters cast their votes, which was only 38.8 percent of the voting age population. It is also likely that more youth will vote in the 2013 elections. Nevertheless, many other important groups of men and women may not vote.
In the old democracies in Western Europe, there is still high voter participation, which is often 80 to 90 percent. That is also the case in the advanced Nordic democracies. The populations are small with relatively close contact between the electorate and their elected leaders and representatives . In addition, foreigners can vote in local elections after a few years of residence in the Nordic countries, and after some more years, in national elections.
It has for a long time been common that citizens, who live abroad can vote at an Embassy or Consulate. Since there is little worry about mistakes in the general population registers, which are common for tax, health and education benefits, there is no need to make separate voter registers. At the polling station, a voter, i.e. any person above the age of 18, can just show his or her identity card in the home district and the name will be found in the list.
Australia and several other countries, mainly in Latin America, have compulsory voting with moderate fines for those who do not vote without an acceptable reason. Yet, the percentage of votes actually cast is just about the same as in the old democracies in Europe. Indeed, there are arguments for and against the system. But it encourages the citizens to be more involved in politics and the state’s affairs. There is also the option to cast a “don’t know” vote, if none of the parties are to one’s liking.
Whether eligible voters actually exercise their right to vote has many causes. It requires involvement by the people to develop the cultural habit of voting. We should remember that participatory democracy in today’s form is just a few hundred years old. For instance, women have only had the right to vote for about a hundred years, or less. In the former colonies, voting has only been a tradition for the past 50 to 60 years. While the Western countries today are advocating free and fair elections, their own record was poor in the former oversees’ territories.
Except for elections in the West, just a few countries have totally free and fair elections; however, they are working towards improving their systems. In Pakistan, preparations for the elections are acceptable. The violence and murders that have happened in the last several days are very serious and entirely against any democratic culture. Yet, it could have been worse, all things considered.
Furthermore, there is voter suppression, votes bought, threats made, and so on. Many women may be told not to vote, or if they do, they should vote the way the husband tells them. As for the latter, I remember that was also common in Norway when I came of age. However, I must add, it is not at all common today.
On a historical note, when the Civil Rights Movement in the US managed to achieve the general rights for African-Americans to vote, the establishment - the white southerners - used many methods to prevent minorities from voting. They tried to use literacy tests and other criteria to bar a person from voting. It was not until 1964 that all this ended.
In Pakistan, thus, we should be analytical and see political developments in their historical and local context, and make comparisons and draw lessons from other countries without being too hard on Pakistan.
At the May 11 general elections, will people make enlightened and well considered judgments and vote for the parties and persons that are the best to represent them and hold leadership posts in society? I asked this question to the Chairman of Gallup Pakistan after the 2008 elections. He thought people voted in a rational way. I was more in doubt since ordinary, poor and less educated people had voted for rich, urban and often highly-educated people to sit in Parliament. I thought the voters were naïve and had voted on the basis of feelings and wishes, not really considering what the representatives were likely to do for them, not just looking after their own interests.
I have recently reflected on the term ‘leader’, as I have had the privilege of giving a few lectures about the topic at local universities. The students liked the following illuminating story about a senior politician, who sits in his comfortable office overlooking a major street where a huge crowd of demonstrating people passes.
When he sees it, he shouts to his assistant: “People are demonstrating. I must rush to lead them.”
His assistant replies: “But do you know why they are demonstrating, and why did they not call you in advance?” The politician said that he had no idea. “But surely they cannot do this alone.”
“They are just ignorant workers,” he says. The politician leans back in his armchair, unwilling to realise that the ‘ignorant workers’ may have taken over the leadership themselves. At the same time, he begins to worry about the future.
What the seasoned politician had not realised was the fact that leaders often come from the bottom, not from the top. That is also what leaders, representatives and the establishment in Pakistan should realise.
This time, at this year’s elections in Pakistan, most of the traditional leaders and representatives will be elected ‘the way they are’. But at the next election, in another five years, if all goes well, I believe the electorate will be more critical and mature, especially if the labour unions have been revived, as some analysts discussed yesterday on the International Labour Day.
Most future leaders should come from the groups that elect them - then very few of today’s leaders would be returned. Thus, most would be ordinary, poor and ‘ignorant people’. At least, that is what we can learn from the history of the Western democracies in the last one or two hundred years – and my anecdote above.
Let me stress that I hope Pakistanis have the patience to wait and build their democracy step by step. I don’t believe in any sudden change, and I do certainly not believe in the military having any role in politics. Elections are important, but the differences between various parties are relatively modest, and all have to work in a national and international economic context. We need to continue our everyday work, led by serious and honest politicians, civil servants and loyal citizens. Election slogans are just like book titles and newspaper headlines. We all have to take part in writing the story.
Let me wish you a ‘Good Election’!
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.