Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The 2018 elections in Pakistan were surrounded by a barrage of controversies. However, there were some positives too that mostly got lost or were buried under all the cacophony decrying the elections. They also got ignored in the many final analyses of the contentious polls. For example, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) an ‘unprecedented’ number of women voted during the said elections. Even though 44.1 percent of the country’s registered voters are women, until last year’s polls, a lot of these women, especially in various peri-urban and rural areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), were not allowed to vote by men.

Read: A look into the turnout of women voters for the 2018 elections

Last year, however, ECP made it clear that no election results would be accepted from constituencies if at least 10 percent of the counted ballots were not cast by women. As a result, there was a 24 percent increase in women voters when the country went to the polls on July 25 last year. Pakistani women were given the right to vote in 1956. But over the decades, many of them have been debarred by the men from casting their ballot, especially in certain conservative areas in KP, the former tribal areas of Fata and even in some rural regions of Sindh and Balochistan.

Studies done on voting patterns in Pakistan based on gender, class, religion and sect have been few. But some convincing and ‘scientific’ research in this context is available on the 1970 and 1993 elections. Interestingly, findings of these studies have continued to assess the more generalised ideas and estimates about who votes for whom in Pakistan. Political analysts and authors Craig Baxter and Phillip E. Jones studied the 1970 elections in detail.

Electoral analyses of last year’s elections show that 18 percent of women voted differently from their male counterparts, significantly tilting the outcomes in some areas

Both found that the urban working-classes, peasants, sections of the urban middle and lower middle classes and ‘minority groups’ voted for the PPP during the 1970 elections — especially in Sindh and Punjab. This perception held till the 1990s. As Dr Muhammad Waseem’s comprehensive study of the 1993 elections exhibited, the PPP began to gradually lose its vote-bank in Punjab to PML-N, and, later, to PTI. Also, minority groups such as the Christians too stopped voting for the PPP, especially in Sindh, mainly due to the Z.A. Bhutto regime’s nationalisation policies, which had brought a number of Church-owned educational institutions under state control.

There are numerous interesting facts still waiting to be unearthed for those willing to do a systematic study of the evolution of voting patterns in Pakistan. But what about women voters? Surprisingly, Baxter, Jones and Waseem, despite their thorough scholarship on the 1970 and 1993 elections, don’t say much about who the country’s women were voting for.

Nevertheless, this brings us to another interesting bit about last year’s elections. According to the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) — which closely monitored and studied last year’s elections in Pakistan — the percentage of the country’s women voters who voted differently from their male counterparts, increased by seven percent.

During the 2013 elections, 11 percent of the country’s women voters had voted differently from men. In the 2018 elections, this increased to 18 percent, including in areas where women are often believed to vote for whoever they are told to vote for by men.

According to the findings by FAFEN, the largest percentage difference in this context was found in KP and Sindh. Some 23 percent of women voters in KP and 21 percent in Sindh cast their ballot for a party that was not supported by the men of their areas. These are telling numbers, connoting women who deviated from voting for parties preferred by male voters. The corresponding number for the Punjab was 15 percent.

FAFEN’s findings suggest that in polling stations in Islamabad, where PTI won, the majority of pro-PTI voters were men. Same was the case for the polling stations where PPP had won. However, at the polling stations where the PML-N won, a majority of PML-N votes were cast by women. In KP, most male voters cast their ballots for PTI and MMA, whereas the votes of 23 percent of women, who voted differently here, went to the PPP and PML-N.

But whatever that has been made available by FAFEN shows that political parties might now want to gain traction from independent-minded women voters whose percentage saw an increase last year and may continue to do so.

In the Punjab, more men voted for PTI at stations where the party received the most votes, whereas at stations where it did not, most women voted for PML-N or the PPP. Sindh in this respect provides an even more interesting picture. The province, beyond its capital Karachi, has been an electoral bastion of the PPP since 1970. Analysing the FAFEN findings, Afiya S. Zia (in The News International) concludes that, without women voters, the PPP would struggle to hold its electoral dominance in Sindh.

Here’s why: According to FAFEN, the reason why the PPP managed to actually increase its electoral influence in Sindh in 2018, was due to the manner in which an overwhelming number of Sindhi women turned out to vote for the party. So, in Sindh, whereas many male voters switched to anti-PPP candidates, in certain areas of north and central Sindh this departure was overwhelmingly compensated by women who voted heavily for the PPP.

Balochistan saw the least percentage of women voting differently than their male counterparts. But those who did, either voted for PTI or the Awami National Party, instead of the Balochistan Awami Party, the party that won the most seats in the province. In many stations of KP and Punjab, where the current ruling party PTI could not win a majority, this was mostly due to women voters who decided to vote for a different party.

Such a study is still in its infancy in Pakistan. But whatever that has been made available by FAFEN shows that political parties might now want to gain traction from independent-minded women voters, whose percentage saw an increase last year and which may continue to do so. It would be fascinating to study why 18 percent of all women voters decided to vote differently from men and whether this trend would continue, and may even trigger future electoral upsets.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 18th, 2019