The recent general elections in Pakistan saw 47 percent of the women registered to vote turn out to express their political preferences at the polls; while this is an increase from previous elections, it indicates the potential for future women-centric Get Out the Vote campaigns.
Women are distinctly different political actors than men, not because they are essentially different from men but as a consequence of the dissimilarities in their lived experience.
In a country still juggling with democracy, astute political parties should learn to tap into this disparate vote bank, shifting their strategy from assuming that women mimic their patriarch’s political preferences to one that claims to understand and directly address women’s preferences.
These preferences become salient due to the presence of the secret ballot, which has cast the efficacy of clientelistic voting into doubt everywhere.
Even though individual voters may promise their votes to a candidate in exchange for an immediate benefit, they can always change their mind at the ballot.
The secrecy of the ballot ensures that no political party can perfectly monitor voting behaviour.
Why will women follow their patriarch’s political alliances when casting their votes?
Are they more likely than men to directly sell their votes to politicians in exchange for an immediate benefit?
And how does this all hold up in a country where external funding has become a prominent source of public goods delivery?
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It is unwise to continue with male-centric politics, with manels lining our political debates on the television, assemblies and on advisory councils.
Women cast their votes on a different logic than just that of mimicking household or patriarchal preferences, and women are susceptible to the self-evaluation of their vote if they are offered money for it.
Women are more likely to be clientelistic voters, given their poor domestic bargaining positions and lack of mobility.
Targeted social safety nets such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) are aimed at correcting this bargaining position by increasing women’s access to discretionary funds.
However, programmes such as the BISP also have long time horizons and high net present values, allowing politicians to leverage these programmes for their own electoral gains.
Politicians can promise women continued access to these programmes, contingent only on favourable voting.
Clientelistic voting amongst women is, therefore, likely to increase, with women rewarding their local politicians for guarantees of continued smooth access to the programme irrespective of their patriarch’s preferences.
Women’s political preferences matter
When it comes to the delivery of public goods, women tend to express distinct and disparate preferences from those of men.
In the context of Pakistan, Sarah Khan’s recent research documents that women rank the same list of public goods differently than men do, and many women are aware that their preference ranking differs from that of their family’s patriarch.
Research from 2004 provides evidence that reserving seats for local women leaders in India resulted in changes in actual policy outputs; women leaders are more likely to respond to women’s preferences, thereby increasing substantial representation.
This ran counter to the conventional wisdom of a Coasian model whereby electing women into power would only change monetary transfers to women, but not actual policy outcomes: in other words, people would “buy off” women but continue to produce the same policy mix.
In a world without transaction costs, Coase’s model predicts that the market continues to produce the goods that people want; if the leader changes, resourceful people can offer them money to make sure they continue to produce the same policies as before.
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While women’s preferences are different, and encourage women leaders to respond differentially, do women’s preferences affect their voting behaviour?
Inglehart and Norris used the World Values Survey to demonstrate differentials in women’s voting patterns across 60 countries, including Pakistan; they concluded that as societies moved to post-industrialism and became democratically more established, women voters supported more left-wing policies.
This change is caused by a reduction in the average age of the women voting electorate; with the demographic shift in Pakistan, the average voting age has been lower in the 2018 elections than in the past.
Younger women voters in general prefer more left-wing policies, which in the case of Pakistan, would include redistributive efforts through the BISP.
Women are likely to display this difference at the polls: while the influence of their male patriarchs cannot be assumed away, the income effect felt through BISP payments coupled with the anonymity afforded by the secret ballot encourages women to vote sincerely.
When and if the Election Commission of Pakistan releases polling station specific Form 45s, it will become possible to examine how women and men’s voting decisions varied across women and men-specific polling stations from within the same constituency.
Differential patterns within constituency will be a strong indicator of women forming different voting decisions than men do, with winning margins indicating when these differences persist despite the presence of a strong contender (who is likely favoured prominently by the constituency’s male voters).
Women and clientelism in the shadow of BISP
There is a lot of speculation about where the BISP money comes from and how beneficiaries are selected amongst those situated around the eligibility threshold.
Many women hold the incorrect view that the money is bequeathed to Pakistan’s poor females by Benazir Bhutto herself.
In my conversations with low-income women in an urban constituency of Lahore in July 2018, many also expressed the view that they will only continue to receive or become eligible for BISP if they voted for the Pakistan People's Party.
Those who were currently on the fund wanted to vote for the incumbent to ensure their flow was not stopped.
Some also expressed that they had been approached by the incumbent and by the PPP leader to cast their vote in return for BISP eligibility or continued BISP benefits.
BISP, like almost all social safety net programmes, is administered at the federal level and has become enshrined in the country’s legislation. It does not fall under the jurisdiction of any one political party or leader.
But local leaders do exercise control over the disbursements of BISP payments and can facilitate access to its funds.
In an environment of low literacy and an increase in mobile/ATM disbursements, this local level mediation assumes salience for female voters.
The recent experimental evidence in a study by Ali Cheema and co-authors shows that women in Punjab face significant mobility barriers in travelling beyond their village, a constraint that makes access guarantees to ATMs and thereby, BISP payments, more important for women.
Women voters are thus more likely to reward politicians for the promise of access to programmes such as BISP and are more likely to rationally offer their votes for short term benefits.
Programmes like BISP that are sourced through external finance (foreign aid, etc) also have a long time horizon: they are unlikely to be phased out by the next government.
Given this federal guarantee, there is less risk associated with development programmes funded through aid.
These programmes redistribute from citizens in donor countries, yet the costs of these programmes are spread thinly over the entire taxpayer population and reduce the salience of foreign aid in donor country politics.
The low political risk of foreign aid funded programmes (including the BISP, which is funded partially through the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development) and their associated long stream of benefits means that women voters have high stakes for continued smooth access, and will rationally trade their votes for access guarantees.
Where public benefits comprise a significant benefit to voters, politicians may find it effective to seek votes using threats of withdrawing access to long term income streams.
This “core voters curse” induces politicians to use “negative inducements” during elections to rally support amongst loyal voters.
In the case of foreign aid funded programmes, these core voters are programme beneficiaries who have an incentive to reward incumbent politicians.
Even when they know that these benefits are not provided directly by the local politician, threats of withdrawing access may induce them to vote in exchange for programme benefits.
From clientelism to substantial representation
While clientelistic voting, especially when it is based off the manipulation of foreign aid funds, is seen as a public bad, it may allow women to cast votes more in line with their own preferences than with those of their most immediate male guardian (spouse, father, brother or son), leading to a heightened perception of being represented.
This perception may not adequately capture “substantive” representation, but it may nevertheless allow women to engage more actively in the political arena and to assume greater autonomy over their personal votes.
A foreign aid funded programme targeted specifically at women, which allows the targeting of clientelism towards women voters, may encourage women to increase their political participation.
This political participation may go beyond turnout improvement to be reflected in women's autonomous preferences for political candidates and parties.
This alternative conception of enhancing representation is encouraging for a young democracy like Pakistan.
While the increased turnout for women owing to BISP, and to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), has its flaws, women are increasingly voting sincerely (i.e., not merely mimicking household or patriarchal preferences) which allows them to become more engaged political actors.
Similarly, even clientelistic party machinery that targets women may increase the self-evaluation of their vote.
Feeling more included, women may move towards not just forming distinct preferences but expressing them at the polls.
This trend is even more heartening amongst low-income females (particularly in abaadis surrounding urban areas) as even vulnerable people are now becoming aware of their civil right.
If PTI continues to engage women as it has in its almost seven to eight year-long campaigning on the slogan of tabdeeli, change may start to become more visible at the polls.
With improved engagement of women voters, eventually legislative demographics will shift, translating perceived representation into substantial representation.
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