THE run-up to what was widely expected to be a fiercely competitive election has been indelibly marred by militant violence and political controversy. But a historic third consecutive on-time general election will be held next Wednesday and it is imperative that voters nationally both be encouraged to vote and feel safe doing so.

For all the necessary attention on candidates and political parties, an election is ultimately, and the ultimate, democratic expression of the will of the people. It is the people of Pakistan that the state must answer to and work for, and it is through the people’s vote that their elected representatives are meant to be chosen.

Read: Plan devised to increase voter turnout

Certainly, the significant political controversies and several decisions of the ECP, the caretaker set-up, the judiciary and the non-elected state apparatus have helped create a climate in which it may no longer be possible to credibly claim that the general election is free and fair. But the power of the vote still remains.

One of the unquestionable gains in the admittedly wobbly and flawed transition to democracy over the past decade has been greater voter participation and public interest in the political process. Low voter turnout helped undermine the electoral process for much of the country’s history, with such turnout likely a result of a combination of voter apathy and political knowledge that many election outcomes were largely predetermined.

But the 2013 general election was unprecedented for voter participation nationally, and through five years of the last parliament and a number of by-elections, voter turnout and political engagement remained high.

Indeed, one of the biggest factors that can help entrench democracy and keep anti-democratic forces at bay is if the Pakistani people consistently and in large numbers vote and participate in the democratic process. Eight days from a difficult but historic election, the voter has a chance to make his or her voice heard over the din of manipulation and farce.

Yet, a voter cannot be expected to turn up at a polling station despite a significant risk to his or her physical safety. Between now and the election, the ECP, the caretaker governments and the vast security apparatus to be deployed to help secure the election ought to work to reassure the public and urgently publicise safety measures that will be in place to protect voters.

The unnecessary controversies that the ECP, the caretaker government and security establishment have been drawn into will not be erased. But the final stretch of the campaign and polling day is another opportunity for Pakistan’s institutions to demonstrate a commitment to upholding the rule of law, securing the peace and supporting the democratic process.

The media can also help play a role by vigorously promoting information crucial for voters on polling day. It will not be easy, but July 25 could yet be salvaged as a reasonable day for democracy.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2018

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