WITH regard to adult franchise in Pakistan, Article 51(2) of the Constitution provides the right of vote to every Pakistani citizen who is 18 years old or older and whose name appears in the electoral rolls — unless the person is declared to be of unsound mind by a court of competent jurisdiction.
The rights and duties under the law and Constitution are not subject to any gender, caste, or creed. They are there for all citizens of Pakistan.
How these are flouted is amply demonstrated in the practice where women are stopped from voting. Last May, it was not for the first time in Pakistan’s electoral history that women were barred from casting their ballot.
This has been a practice in a few parts of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when elections take place in Pakistan. This year, in NA-61 Chakwal, at the Dhurnal polling station, there were reports that women were barred from casting their votes.
A more frightening dimension of the problem relates to the militants’ hold. A militant outfit issued a written warning to the people of Hangu to stop voters from participating in the elections, declaring it the infidel’s way to elect a government.
Female voters were particularly ordered to stay home, away from the polling stations, otherwise they could abducted and slaughtered.
In line with ‘tradition’, the contestants and ticket holders of some registered political parties contesting elections from Mianwali and from Phalia tehsil in Mandi Bahauddin in the heart of Punjab and from Lakki Marwat and Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, executed agreements to bar female voters from casting their ballots after holding meetings with the local elders.
A particularly appalling situation was reportedly observed at a government primary school in Mardan, where the agents of all three candidates including one advocate allegedly agreed to violate the law and the presiding officer gave a written assurance that no action would be taken under the law.
The sad truth is that until or unless these issues are highlighted by the media, no one will initiate any action. The media shakes gavels, the gavels nudge the executive and the executive finally springs into action.
Ideally, political parties themselves should introduce reforms in their internal systems and undertake to perform their legal responsibilities.
Under the law, all political parties that are registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan are bound by the Political Parties Order 2002 that bars their office-bearers and members, including those holding poll tickets, from propagating any opinion and acting in a manner that is injurious to the ideology of Pakistan.
Political parties are also bound to work towards strengthening the sovereignty and integrity of the country, and not subverting public order or fuelling the sway of terrorism.
It is a worrisome situation that the political parties have become so naïve that they have not taken any action against their ticket holders for participating in such activities which again they are legally bound to do.
Under the law, any member of the party who is involved in illegal activities can be suspended or expelled after the holding of a free and fair inquiry according to the party’s own constitution, if he or she is found guilty.
Going by electoral laws and the Pakistan Constitution, excluding citizens (in this case women voters) from the electoral process is a glaring violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and integrity, and those who have done so, or attempted to do so, should not be allowed into parliament.
They have violated the principle of freedom of franchise and the equality of men and women, and have thus acted against the country’s ideology.
If these political parties fail to initiate any action against their members, then the federal government has the power to send references through the ECP against those political parties that have indulged in the practice. The reference may be sent to the Supreme Court of Pakistan where the court after considering all evidence can issue orders for the dissolution of the party.
Political resolve is always more effective than legal penalties. To avoid this unwanted situation, the insertion of a clause specific to women voters in the Representation of People Act 1976, could be a significant measure.
Under this clause, at least 10pc to 15pc of women whose names are on the voters’ list at a particular polling station should have voted, otherwise the results could be stopped or annulled.
The barring of women voters must be declared a valid enough reason for declaring an election null and void. It should lead to strict penalties for candidates, ticket-holders and parties who support this ban or fail to take strict action.
The candidates must be black-listed and barred from taking part in the elections from the platform of any party or as independent candidates.
The Peshawar High Court has ordered re-polling in two constituencies of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where women were barred from voting. The courts in other provinces should follow suit.
However, only when there is a greater resolve by the state to penalise those propagating this practice will women be given unhindered access to the polling booths.
The writer is a lawyer.