By Air Commodore ® Khalid Iqbal                                                                        

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 regarding 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 Baluchistan. Era of boycott and disruption of election is over, at least for the time being.

Time is now ripe to take the country out of the malice of low voter turnout. For this a well thought out strategy has to be evolved to strengthen the enabling environment for the voters. Diverse sets of factors correlate with voter turnout in Pakistan. Main factors are: compelling issues, charismatic leadership, faith in the fairness of 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, ECP had proposed declaring the results at any polling station null-and-void that attracted less than ten percent of the women voters’. However, the proposal could not get through because of opposition from some mainstream political parties. 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 ten 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 to 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, separate record for the female voters will be maintained.

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A recent booklet, jointly published by National Data Registration Authority (NADRA) and the ECP provides comparative data about Pakistani voter’s turnout patterns with select countries. In India, the average voter turnout is 59.4 per cent and in Bangladesh it is 58.2 percent. Pakistan’s average turnout of 45.3 percent is only better than Egypt (45.1%), Ivory Coast (37%) and Mali, which has the lowest voter turnout of 21.3 percent.

Somme 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 institutionalizes 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 per cent. While in the same year, in Bangladesh 87.4 per cent voters cast their vote in the parliamentary elections. In India’s 2009 general elections, voter turnout was 59.7 per cent.

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. This is likely to allow the 4.5 million Pakistanis living abroad to cast their ballot. It is for the first time that Pakistanis living abroad will be able to vote. Available details indicate that polling staff will be sent to Pakistani missions for arranging the polling. Two centres would be set up 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, the impact is likely to be of limited consequence except in the areas which are traditionally expat pockets.

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Almost all political parties had urged 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 Pakistanis in other countries 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 our electoral process.

To improve the turnout, the ECP will have to make necessary arrangements for the voting of internally displaced persons. In some of the constituencies, over 90 percent of the population has been displaced due to ongoing violence. It would be appropriate to setup 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/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 turn-out.  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 turn out. Likewise, insertion of ‘none-of-the-above’ box on the ballot paper is also 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.

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ECPs’ restraint on political parties regarding provision of transport to voters is likely to be flouted. However, assuming that it could be imposed in letter and spirit, it would reduce the voter turnout tremendously. To offset the impact of this restriction on turnout, ECP should itself make arrangement for providing transport to the voters and increase the number of polling stations so that even elderly, sick and physically handicapped voters 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. Computerizes National Identity Card (CNIC) number could itself become the vote number, inserting the CNIC into an ATM like machine should display the candidates’ names and symbols, voter should place his/her thumb on the appropriate symbol, machine should check the authenticity of the thumb impressions 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.

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