PAK POLLS: That’s what gives Hope

Published: June 5, 2013 - 13:13

On voting in Pakistan, five years ago, one would hear people nonchalantly remark: my vote doesn’t count. What can one vote achieve against so many? Come Elections 2013, and popular rhetoric was: every vote counts

Farieha Aziz Karachi 

For the first time in its history, Pakistan made a successful transition from one civilian government to another. Many times during the five years of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government’s tenure, there was speculation on whether it would survive the term. Year one, two, three, then four and five, the naysayers were proved wrong, just like they were about the elections, which, according to them, would not take place.

Despite all odds — and systematic hiccups — the elections took place. The government will be formed. But more interesting than what is transpiring on the political front right now is what transpired before this transition; particularly the visible change in the attitudes of the electorate towards the political process. 

On voting, five years ago, one would hear many people nonchalantly remark: my vote doesn’t count; it doesn’t make a difference. What can one vote achieve against so many? Everything is pre-decided. Come Elections 2013, and popular rhetoric was: every vote counts.

First-time contenders, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), can certainly be credited for converting a largely ‘apolitical’ populace that previously held a contemptuous view of politics. The PTI took the lead in instilling the importance of every vote, of being part of the process, of stepping beyond the confines of one’s comfy homes and getting involved. It was particularly successful in drawing the youth’s interest.

As a student of a public university where on-campus violence was rampant, I remember how there was a clear divide between politically active students and those who called themselves apolitical. The politically active generally belonged to student wings of mainstream political parties. The apolitical — mostly from private school backgrounds — were those who had no political affiliations, neither did they aspire to develop any. They just wanted to keep their head down, receive an education and graduate. Politics was not a priority, neither were political debates. For them, politics was just a dirty playing field.

But, that too changed. One saw students—from private schools —actively participate in voter registration drives and agitate to vote. 

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) too, from the time it took charge, sought to increase voter turnout through various initiatives — from door-to-door voter verification to video tutorials on television on how to vote. The most useful perhaps was the 8,300 number the ECP established. Message your NIC (National Identity Card) number to it, and voters received the following information: name and address of polling station, block code (designated room where vote would be cast) and serial number (where one’s name appeared on the voters’ list).

On television, a video featuring celebrities encouraging people to cast their vote was run often. On Facebook, ‘how to vote’ videos and pictures instructing people where to place the stamp and how to fold the ballot paper became quite popular.

All this captured people’s interest. Unlike in previous elections, the focus was less on rhetoric, and more on process. There was less confusion since more useful information was being churned out. This helped also as these instructions were used as a measure on ‘election day’, to see whether the officers were actually complying with the directives or not. It is how irregularities were detected and reported, since voters knew what to expect.

In Karachi, there was a sense of trepidation as ‘election day’ approached. In a violence-marred city such as Karachi, killings are a norm, reported in some part of the city on a daily basis. Public gatherings and places invite fear, vulnerable to attacks either by terrorists or rival parties. The city was not violence-free in the lead-up to the elections either; political party meetings were targetted with bombs, grenades and firing. On ‘election day’, the fear of polling stations being attacked remained.

Yet, the day was festive, particularly in the very contentious NA-250 constituency, which went into a re-poll a week later. Men and women, young and old, lined up outside their polling stations well before they were scheduled to open. As the day progressed and it got hotter, residents of the area arranged for water for voters standing in line. Others followed suit and soon juices, snacks and even icicles (called ice lollies) were being passed around. Even a policeman helped out the volunteers and distributed water bottles among those standing in line. Families escorted the elderly in wheelchairs; some came with walkers in their hands. Elsewhere, one gentleman was brought on a stretcher.

Gates still shut past noon, with no signs of opening, voters from other polling stations made trips reassuring those standing in line that their turn will come, urging them to wait and
not leave.

Despite the fact that many stood in line for hours on end, but were not able to cast their vote, rowdy behaviour or violence did not follow. It is not often one witnesses such restraint. The norm is angry protests followed by burning of tyres and whatever else is available. Here, however, sit-ins were the preferable mode of protest. When a re-poll was announced for the constituency, voters dispersed amicably, resolving to come back on the day of re-poll. 

The re-poll was not without its set of problems. In the week that led up to it, a war of words ensued between the dominant political force, MQM (Mutahida Qaumi Movement) and PTI. There was an incident of firing near a rally protesting against rigging, but what really sent shock waves was the murder of PTI member Zahra Shahid Hussain on the eve of the re-poll. The fear factor set in; since the MQM had boycotted the re-poll, it was evident that those going out to vote were largely PTI supporters. Being targetted as a result of this association was playing on many minds. Would it be safe to go, questioned many?

Elections 2013 was the first time the middle/upper middle classes took ownership of the political process

Yet, once again, people did go out to vote. The numbers did not compare to those on ‘election day’, but, nonetheless, people went. Social media that day was flooded with pictures of ink-stained thumb impressions as a form of encouragement for others. A picture of an elderly lady with stick-in-hand was circulated with the caption: if she can, so can you!

Elections 2013 was the first time the middle/upper middle classes took ownership of the political process. Logic was: if not us, then who? If not now, then when?

The realization that complaining would not achieve anything, but voting in the right choice would, had sunk in. Not only did they participate in the process as voters, many registered as polling officers. These elections also saw many first-time voters, as well as the rise of independent candidates.

Twenty-six year old Mohammed Jibran Nasir was one such candidate. Contesting against PTI stalwarts for the NA-250 seat, he was seen among the people. First, he stood in line like the rest to cast his vote. Later in the day, he was seen glued to the wall of one polling station where polling never started, trying to get information from officials and pass it to voters outside. Also notable was his effort to file a written complaint with the ECP regarding the malpractices at various polling stations on the day of polling.

Another Independent was Bindiya Rana, Pakistan’s first transgender candidate, who stood as a voice for the transgender community. Even if the chances of their winning were slim, this did not deter people from supporting or voting for them. They supported them because of what they stood for, and for addressing issues mainstream parties refused to.

There was a level of sophistication and intelligent discourse in these elections, which never existed before. While much remains the same, many steps have been taken away from conventional politicking. Seeds of change in the shape of new entrants, newfound zeal and better practices, have been sowed. While the process will take time to evolve and become better, as will the electorate and those who seek to represent it, this is certainly the beginning, and that’s what gives hope.  

On voting in Pakistan, five years ago, one would hear people nonchalantly remark: my vote doesn’t count. What can one vote achieve against so many? Come Elections 2013, and popular rhetoric was: every vote counts
Farieha Aziz Karachi 

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