It is refreshing that all political parties are enthusiastically taking part in the forthcoming elections. One party even went overboard to approach the UNO for a trivial issue concerning the delimitation of constituencies. Moreover, thanks to concerted behind-the-scene political process and relentless implementation of multiple development projects, of public interest, by the Pakistan Army, that all worthwhile political entities are participating in the electoral process in Balochistan. The era of boycott and disruption of election is over, at least for the time being.
Time is now ripe to raise the level of the past negligible voter turnout in the country. For this, a well thought out strategy has to be evolved to strengthen the enabling environment for the voters. The diverse set of factors correlates with voter turnout in Pakistan. The main factors are: compelling issues, charismatic leadership, faith in the fairness of the electoral process and enabling environment. Motivation of the parties to pull out voters is a major contributory factor.
Pakistan stands at 164th in terms of voter turnout among the 169 counties that have had democratic elections over the past 50 years. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) expects voters’ turnout between 60 to 65 percent in the upcoming elections, including estimated 40 percent turnout of the women voters.
Last year, the ECP had proposed declaring the results at any polling station ‘null and void’ that attracted less than 10 percent of the women voters’. However, the proposal could not get through because of opposition from some mainstream political parties. The opponents of this proposal were of the view that women voters’ turnout generally remains low at the polling stations located in the rural areas. Therefore, nullifying the results of polling stations with less than 10 percent female voters’ turnout may not be a workable option.
Moreover, in certain parts of the country major political contenders have been reaching a mutual agreement to not involve the women in the voting process. There is no credible figure as to how many women exercised their right to vote in the past elections. This time, a separate record for the female voters will be maintained.
A recent booklet, jointly published by the National Data Registration Authority (Nadra) and the ECP, provides comparative data of the Pakistani voter turnout patterns with select countries. In India, the average turnout is 59.4 percent and in Bangladesh, 58.2 percent. Pakistan’s average turnout of 45.3 percent is only better than Egypt’s (45.1 percent), Ivory Coast (37 percent) and Mali, which has the lowest turnout of 21.3 percent.
Some countries have made voting compulsory for its citizens. Australia is one of the first countries to have taken this step; there average voter turnout is 94.5 percent. In Peru, voters are required to carry a stamped voting card as a proof for having cast their vote. In a democracy, a citizen’s vote is an empowering tool, which is effective only if exercised. Vote institutionalises two important civic rights: choosing the future leadership and accountability of previous leaders.
As regards low voter turnout, there are various reasons associated with it: security concerns, sociological issues and taboos, lack of compelling issues, lack of faith in the contesting personalities, despondency syndrome, indifference, etc. In Pakistan’s 2008 general elections, voter turnout was 44.1 percent. While in the same year, in Bangladesh, 87.4 percent voters cast their vote in the parliamentary elections. In India’s 2009 general elections, the voter turnout was 59.7 percent.
It is encouraging that arrangements are afoot to enable overseas voters to participate in the polls. Nadra has announced that necessary mechanism has been put in place. This is likely to allow the 4.5 million Pakistanis living abroad to cast their ballot for the first time since the country came into being. Available details indicate that polling staff will be sent to Pakistani missions and two centres would be setup in the countries, which house over 100,000 Pakistani nationals and one in those where the presence is thinner. It will be interesting to gauge the impact of these votes. In all probability, it is likely to be of limited consequence, except in the areas that are traditionally expat pockets.
Almost all political parties have been urging the Supreme Court and the ECP to make it possible for overseas Pakistanis to participate in the electoral exercise. The system worked out by Nadra is new and one hopes that it functions efficiently. While expats should certainly have the right to vote, such ventures in other countries have led to allegations of unfair play. Hopefully, we will not add a new controversy to the electoral process.
To improve the turnout, the ECP will have to make necessary arrangements for the voting of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In some of the constituencies, over 90 percent of the population has been displaced due to violence. It would be appropriate to set up mobile polling booths to reach out to all IDP camps and facilitate such people.
The act of seeking votes on the basis of religion, sect or ethnicity has been made an offence by the ECP. Keeping in view, the socio-political environment of the country, religion or sect, tribe, clan and ethnic alignment are powerful drivers in the context of attracting voters. Voting is also territory and constituency oriented.
Moreover, local ethnic based power structures play a vital role in electoral dynamics. Therefore, if at all, this restriction is implemented, it would reduce the turnout.
At the same time, another instruction by the ECP that three-year jail terms shall be awarded for stopping others from voting is a positive step that would boost the turnout.
Likewise, the insertion of ‘none-of-the-above’ box on the ballot paper is likely to encourage voters to come out and vote. The ECP has also announced a jail term for those who disrupt the working of polling staff. This step would go a long way in infusing a sense of security amongst the polling staff as well as the voters.
The ECP’s restraint on political parties about the provision of transport to the voters is likely to be flouted. However, assuming that it could be imposed in letter and in spirit, it would reduce the voter turnout tremendously. To offset the impact of this restriction on turnout, the ECP should itself make arrangement for providing transport to the voters and increase the number of polling stations so that even the elderly, the sick and the physically handicapped could cast their votes conveniently.
Democracy cannot evolve and flourish unless an overwhelming majority of the people votes. Voting process should be made as simple and as convenient as possible. The Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) number could itself become the vote number, inserting the CNIC into an ATM like machine should display the candidate’s name and symbol, the voter should place his or her thumb on the appropriate symbol, machine should check the authenticity of the thumb impression against previously recorded data in the CNIC/mainframe; then it should accept or reject the vote and issue an acknowledgment receipt either way. This is the kind of system that we should develop for 2018 elections.
    The writer is an academic and a freelance columnist.