In the recently-enacted Elections Act, 2017, which was given assent by the President of Pakistan on Oct 2, several provisions were included for political mainstreaming of women in the country. As the issue of disenfranchisement of women is a recurring phenomenon especially in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and had resulted in legal battles in past, some of the new provisions relate to declaring a poll void by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on the grounds of disenfranchisement of women.

The present ECP having five commissioners, headed by Chief Election Commissioner retired Justice Sardar Mohammad Raza Khan, has in past shown zero-tolerance for such issues and in one such case it had declared a by-election held in PK-75, Lower Dir, as void on June 2, 2015, as not a single women cast her vote. However, the said judgment of ECP was set aside by the Peshawar High Court on March 10, 2016, and the issue has now been pending before the Supreme Court.

From time to time such issues continued to surface in the general elections as well as local government elections. These issues not only pertained to disenfranchisement of women, but also included barring women from political participation on seats reserved for them in the local governments.

Several female voters had moved the high court in 2001 during the military government of General Pervez Musharraf. Those petitioners had alleged that they were stopped from voting through different coercive measures in Swabi district, including agreements reached between contesting candidates in the local government elections. The petitioners had requested the high court to declare polls in those union councils as null and void.

A two-member bench of the court had dismissed those petitions on March 17, 2004, on technical grounds related to jurisdiction of the court, but it clearly pronounced that the practice of barring women from voting was unconstitutional. “We strongly deprecate all such means, devices, threats and even agreements aimed at restraining the female registered voters from participating in the electoral process,” the bench had ruled.

While in past written agreements were signed between different political groups and individuals so as to stop women from contesting polls and casting votes in elections, with the passage of time such agreements came under challenge before different courts. Subsequently, the elements averse to women political participation resorted to verbal agreements so as not to leave any evidence of their wrongdoing. To tackle those past illegal practices, Section 9 is included in the Elections Act empowering the ECP to declare an election void on the grounds of disenfranchisement of women.

Section 9 (1) states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, if , from facts apparent on the face of the record and after such enquiry as it may deem necessary, the Commission is satisfied that by reason of grave illegalities or such violations of the provisions of this Act or the Rules as have materially affected the result of the poll at one or more polling stations or in the whole constituency including implementation of an agreement restraining women from casting their votes, it shall make a declaration accordingly and call upon the voters in the concerned polling station or stations or in the whole constituency as the case may be, to recast their votes in the manner provided for by-elections.”

Explanation to the said section provides that if turnout of women voters is less than 10 per cent of the total votes polled in a constituency, the ECP may presume that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes and may declare polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency as void.

Under sub-section 5 of the said section, any person aggrieved by a declaration of the ECP may prefer an appeal to the Supreme Court within 30 days of the said declaration. In past, an aggrieved person used to move the concerned high court against such order of the ECP.

Furthermore, Section 170 of the Act provides that a person is guilty of exercising undue influence if he prevents any woman from contesting an election or exercising her right to vote. The crime is punishable up to three years imprisonment, or with fine of Rs100,000, or both.

Section 206 of the Act states: “A political party shall make the selection of candidates for elective offices, including membership of the Majlis-i-Shoora (Parliament) and provincial assemblies, through a transparent and democratic procedure and while making the selection of candidates on general seats shall ensure at least five per cent representation of women candidates.”

However, experts on the subject believe that keeping in view the past track record of major political parties it is not expected from them to award party tickets to women in constituencies which they consider as their strongholds. They believe that it is expected these political parties would award ticket to female candidates in constituencies where their position is weak.

Another issue of concern is the growing disparity between male and female voters. According to data of ECP compiled till Oct 12, 2017, there are total 97.022 million registered voters of which 54.598 million are male (56 per cent) and 42.424 million female voters (44 per cent).

Section 47 of the Act has made it binding on ECP that it shall annually publish date of registered men and women voters in each National Assembly and Provincial Assembly constituency highlighting the difference in number of registered men and women voters.

The law provides where the variation in the data is more than 10 per cent in a constituency, the ECP shall take special measures to reduce such variation.

An additional director general (gender affairs) of ECP, Ms Nighat Siddique, has told mediapersons in Peshawar recently that to address the disparity between male and female voters, the ECP will launch a special campaign by the end of November in 79 districts across the country. That campaign would continue till April 2018 in 27 districts of Punjab, 24 of Sindh, 16 of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 11 of Balochistan, and Islamabad.

Experts say that for mainstreaming of women in political process, the provisions of the Elections Act, 207, need to be fully implemented.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2017