Pakistan’s myth-busting election
Never in Pakistan’s checkered electoral history has a parliamentary term been completed and a smooth transition taken place in the capital, as well as the four provinces. The 2013 elections are being held against a backdrop of dismal GDP growth (3.7 percent) and electricity rationing that lasts up to 18 hours a day. Owing to ...
Never in Pakistan’s checkered electoral history has a parliamentary term been completed and a smooth transition taken place in the capital, as well as the four provinces.
The 2013 elections are being held against a backdrop of dismal GDP growth (3.7 percent) and electricity rationing that lasts up to 18 hours a day. Owing to multiple policy and procedural failures, the country suffered a sharp decline in Foreign Direct Investment, from $8.5 billion in 2008 to a meager $500 million in 2012. Moreover its own currency, the rupee, has steeply devalued against the dollar over the last five years as well. In open market on Friday, one U.S. dollar was sold for 99.7 rupees while the ratio was one to 63.1 after the 2008 elections.
Despite enormous shortcomings at various levels, on Saturday, the Pakistani nation will choose from 104 political parties and will vote to elect 342 members to its National Assembly and 728 members to its four provincial legislatures.
The landmark 2013 election accompanies many firsts, eight of which are listed below, and busts several myths associated with Pakistan’s image abroad.
1. Electoral Roll
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) have developed an elaborate computerized electoral roll, with each citizen’s name listed with his or her 10 fingerprints and photograph (exceptions are made for women who cover their faces). Unlike manual lists, the computerized listing of voters not only eliminates multiple entries but has also been published to invite public scrutiny, correction, and transparency. Any of the 86.1 million voters can find out his polling station or booth by sending his Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) number in a text message to 8300. Moreover, no citizen will be authorized to cast his vote without producing a CNIC (which is nearly impossible to copy with its 20 hidden security features). The returning officer and his staff will then be able to verify the identity of the voter, providing yet another measure to counter electoral fraud.
2. Eligibility of the Candidates
To examine the candidates currently campaigning, the ECP created an Integrated Scrutiny System comprised of the National Accountability Bureau, the National Database Registration Authority, the Federal Bureau of Revenue, and the State Bank of Pakistan whereby criminal, financial, and tax histories could be considered simultaneously. In a country of 3.6 million tax defaulters, the system has applied global standards for informed decision-making and deterred many chronic criminals from taking the risk of exposing themselves before the system. It also disqualified about 20,000 candidates from running due to their questionable histories. Though the scrutiny process has been completed, the aspirants’ nomination papers are available online for media and public oversight. For example, key hardline cleric Maulana Fazalur Rahman had to pay outstanding taxes for the past three years to be eligible to run, according to the FBR. Similarly, several mainstream political stalwarts had to pay their defaulted loans to avert obvious disqualification. While much work remains to be done in this realm, the measure has built confidence in the newly adopted scrutiny system for both the public and external observers.
3. Autonomy of Election Commission
Thanks to legislation called the 18th amendment, the ECP has become more autonomous in determining its budget, administrative management, and legal and procedural decision-making. In a rare development, instead of being a handpicked figure, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is a widely-respected veteran of the Supreme Court, appointed with consensus amongst political parties. The CEC does not enjoy veto power over four other election commissioners, who are also retired justices of higher courts, allowing for a majority rule on any disputes. Exercising its authority, the ECP overruled objections by President Asif Ali Zardari (who also heads the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP]) on the candidates’ nomination forms. The PPP felt the ECP was asking too many details about the candidates but the commission argued it had a constitutional mandate to amend the forms as they saw fit. The new election body will draw additional strength from the country’s Supreme Court.
4. Three-Party Contest
Instead of being a traditional two-party contest between the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the secular, liberal-leaning PPP, the 2013 election witnesses a third powerful political contender as well. Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), along with its two older competitors, is reaching out to the people without forming serious alliances. Unlike the past, the powerful military has been overtly and covertly neutral. In a recent address to military men, Army chief General Ashraf Pervez Kiyani not only dispelled rumors of election postponement, but also unequivocally declared that a campaign against terror is Pakistan’s war.
5. Transgenders for Public Representatives
In today’s Pakistan, transgender individuals are not only eligible to vote but they can also campaign for a parliamentary or provincial assembly slot. In conjunction with last year’s court ruling, a separate section allowing a voter to define oneself as something other than male or female was added to the CNIC. As a result, over 1,000 citizens have openly identified themselves as transgender. They are all registered voters and a few are even contesting assembly seats, though there is little chance of victory.
6. Voter Turnout
In 2013, the electorate is significantly more aware of the power of the vote and turnout is expected to be exceptionally high. Though both secular and right-wing Islamist parties have been attacked on the campaign trail, none have decided to boycott the May 11 election. And while terrorist attacks have claimed the lives of 135 political workers and leaders, no high-profile leader has been killed and elections were postponed in only one constituency after an attack claimed the life of one of the candidates there.
7. Youth on Political Agenda
h Pakistan’s electoral rolls showing 47.9 percent of eligible voters under the age of 35, youth interests are high on the political agendas of all mainstream parties. Due to widespread use of cellular phones and greater Internet density, Pakistan’s youth have really become politicized and are motivated to cast their ballots. They see political engagement as an opportunity to fight corrupt leaders and extremist trends in society. The PTI alone claims 35 percent of its candidates are below the age of 35, an unprecedented phenomenon in traditional electoral politics. On the whole, computerized electoral rolls include 36 million new voters for the 2013 election.
8. Anti-American vote
With the exception of fervor against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions, the election campaigns revolved around ensuring security, education, health, and employment. The religious right failed to create a coalition similar to the United Front for Action seen in 2002, which will likely weaken their showing in the elections. Their usual 10-percent voting block will not only be shared by the right-wing religious parties, but also by mainstream giants like the PML and the PTI. Both parties are unprecedentedly threatening the stronghold of pro-Taliban mullahs and at least eight alleged hardliners are campaigning on the PML platform to exploit greater prospects of winning.
Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic focusing on democratization, diplomacy, and security. Besides publishing globally, he is invited to news channels as an analyst. Mr. Ahmad is the co-founder and director of Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges, a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations award-winning, multi-lingual, free-to-use feature service focusing on human stories of cross-cultural, cross-religious integration and peaceful co-existence. He tweets at @naveed360 and @endprejudice.
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