THE approaching general election is expected to be different from the previous 10 elections in many ways. One distinction is that for the first time in the electoral history of Pakistan, political parties will be bound to award party tickets to women for at least five per cent of the general seats contested by the party in each of the five assemblies.
This means that we should expect a much larger number of women candidates for membership of the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies in the next election. Will this also mean a larger number of women actually getting elected on general seats?
Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely.
Currently, we have only nine women members elected on general seats in the National Assembly, which corresponds to just 2pc of the total 272 general seats. In the Punjab Assembly, eight women were elected on a total of 297 general seats which corresponds to 2.6pc. In the Sindh Assembly, only one woman was elected on a general seat out of a total 130. No woman could get elected on 99 and 51 general seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan respectively. We, therefore, have only 18 women elected on general seats out of a total of 849 general seats in the national and four provincial assemblies, which comes to a pathetic 2pc of the total number of general seats.
There are numerous factors that impede the candidature and election of women on general seats. Therefore, about 17pc of seats are currently reserved for women in our national and provincial legislatures. This is the highest number of reserved seats in the history of the country. But at a recent consultation with a diverse and multiparty group of women legislators, candidates and party officials along with researchers and legal minds, a general dissatisfaction was expressed about the current system of election to reserved seats for women.
Currently, we have only nine women members elected on general seats in the National Assembly.
Women legislators felt that the women elected on reserved seats were not treated at par with their counterparts elected on the general seats. In most of the legislatures, the development funds allocated to each legislator are not allocated to women elected on the reserved seats on the pretext that they do not have constituencies. It is forgotten that women elected on reserved seats have the entire province as their constituency.
Most women politicians feel that their parties do value them and wish to nominate them as candidates in the general elections based on their ability and past performance. But they are not selected as candidates because they do not have the financial resources to run their own election campaign. Women politicians strongly feel that their parties should raise funds to finance their election campaign. They cite the example of the MQM, which had been funding the election campaign of most of its candidates; the latter, who mostly come from modest backgrounds, do not have to pay for their campaign expenses.
Lack of funds for running the election campaign was cited as the most important reason for women politicians to not contest election. In this background, there is a widespread scepticism about the usefulness of the new law that requires parties to award at least 5pc tickets to women. Although the new law is recognised as a welcome effort to provide a level playing field to women, many who closely watch the election scene feel that parties may award tickets to women for such constituencies where the parties do not have a sizeable following and hence no chance of winning the election. Even the women who are awarded tickets may not be able to run a meaningful campaign. The award of a greater number of party tickets may become a mere formality.
A large number of female political activists feel that the increase in the ceiling of election expenses from Rs1.5 million to Rs4m in the case of the National Assembly and from Rs1m to Rs2m in the case of the provincial assemblies is unfair and will make contesting elections only more difficult for persons with modest means, especially for women. If we want the new law to improve the chances of women to contest and win elections, a few steps will need to be taken both in the short and long term.
To begin with, the Election Commission of Pakistan should make effective arrangements to strictly monitor poll-related expenses. It is an open secret that most of the candidates spend many times more than they are allowed to by the law and action is hardly ever taken against the violators. The new law provides for district monitoring committees; the ECP has announced the formation of such committees to strictly monitor election-related expenses.
Modern and affordable technology like videography can be easily employed to monitor violations. Wide publicising of strict monitoring, and timely action by the ECP, will send a strong message to all concerned. This will help the entire system but it will be most helpful to women candidates who face far bigger financial issues than their male counterparts. The Indian election commission is known to monitor election-related expenses very strictly and this practice is the single biggest reason for the good reputation of elections in India. We hope that the ECP will set equally good or better standards when it comes to monitoring election-related expenses, especially now that the ceiling for poll costs has been more than doubled.
In the long term, the system of election to reserved seats for women may be reviewed by parliament. A system of rotating reserved constituencies may be devised where only women can contest elections. The same system has been successfully employed by India for seats reserved for scheduled castes and tribes. In addition, political parties need to improve their organisation to be able to raise funds to support women candidates with modest resources.
The writer is the president of Pildat.
Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2018