IPRI – Islamabad Policy Research Institute

Empowering the electorate

Pakistanis are apparently the only nation in the Westphalian state-system who talk of elections day in and day out, but do not go to polls on D-day. This is why the turnout since the first general election in the 70’s has never been more than 45 percent of the registered voters. This is an enigma of sorts with reference to popular participation, and at the same time poses credibility questions on the viability of the parliamentary system of governance in a country whose literacy rate is less than 55 percent.

Not withstanding the dismal trajectory of democracy and the never-ending phenomenon of rigged elections, Pakistanis are democratic at heart. Almost all civil and corporate structures of lifeline have elected bodies. Be they bar elections, teachers’ bodies, trade and student unions, professional entities such as engineers, doctors or charter-accountants; all are very particular and vehemently believe in the supremacy of being elected and exercising their powers.

There is a dichotomy, though. The same nation is denied municipal or local bodies’ polls, as they are seldom held. Political parties across the divide, who do not stop chest-thumping to marvel at the indispensability of vote, do not campaign for local bodies. This is hypocrisy and double-standards at their best. The only reason that stops them from having their heart in the local elected tier is that they apparently do not believe in empowering the grassroots level!

This attitude, perhaps, has much to do with their own undemocratic genesis. No political party in Pakistan has an evolving democratic structure. It is either dynastic in essence or an inverted pyramid sort of dictatorial hierarchy. Most of the top slots are decided in drawing room politics. The only marginal exception is Jamaat-e-Islami. This has bred zero-tolerance towards dissent, and led to a culture of sycophancy. Men at the helm of affairs remain disoriented from ground realities, and the electorate longs in desperation.

Electoral reforms are no less than a mantra. They are, indeed, a non-starter. All political entities yell for them, but none muster the courage to put it in black and white. Prime Minister Imran Khan, a voice for change, too has bowled short-of-length. His reforms’ ambition in the realm of elections, police, judiciary and the bureaucracy are in the doldrums.

Now with the focus on electronic voting machines (EVM) and the right to vote for expatriates, there is an opportunity to roll out a comprehensive set of legislation. It is no small initiative that the government plans to introduce more than 400,000 EVMs to voters across the country, who to this day were preoccupied with Form-45 discrepancies, and held their breaths as ballots were counted.

But this is not enough. The intention should be to make the ballot more popular and, in fact, mandatory. It is ridiculous that less than 50 percent or so go to vote, and the winner seizes the throne with a mere 25 percent of total votes cast. The turnout in 2018 was 51.7 percent, and the winning PTI clinched around 32 percent votes.

There are two ways out: Introduce proportional representation and make voting a compulsory national duty like conscription. More than 24 nations have made it a compulsion to vote and have linked it with constitutional duties and responsibilities. Why shouldn’t we do it too? After all, the nation and the politicians are so passionate about the philosophy of the ballot.

Universal suffrage will not only empower and educate the people, but also strengthen national institutions, especially the executive and the parliament. Peoples’ assertiveness will result in self-accountability, and do away with ad-hocism, perjury and abuse of power. This is what democracy is all about, and the very fruition of adult franchise.

The government and the opposition must see through the same prism while introducing electoral reforms with the thrust being on empowering the doctrine of one-man, one-vote. No point in cribbing over it under assumptions. One hopes the autumn of 2023, when the nation will go to poll, wont be a season of discontent.

Note: This article appeared in The Nation, dated 06 November 2021.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.

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