FELLOW Gen X readers may remember the 1985 movie Brewster’s Millions where (short version) a baseball player, played by Richard Pryor, has to spend $30 million in a month in order to inherit $300m. A lot of nonsensical comedy ensues as he spends that money, like choosing to run for mayor of New York. During a campaign trail, he tells people not to vote for any of the candidates. “Write in none of the above on your ballot,” he says. Admittedly, it was a ridiculous premise but it’s also a statement about the sham nature of electoral politics, especially when none of the above wins.
The Election Commission of Pakistan reneged on its 2013 proposal to include none of the above (NOTA) on the ballot papers. Perhaps it is time for a radical rethink or a radical revisit, by giving people a chance to register their feelings and say ‘none of the above’.
It is especially timely because I suspect a new group is being propped up as potential heroes who can (ahem) sweep in to fix the socio-political-economic mess. Pakistan’s millions know how this story begins — and ends.
The NOTA vote, or an iteration of it, is available in 14 countries. This is not to be confused with spoiling your vote or an invalid vote. Policymakers believe it an accurate reflection of just how engaged the electorate is and that it allows legislators to work towards introducing systemic change, especially in the merit of the candidates they field.
NOTA is a chance for citizens to be heard.
In a supreme court ruling in 2013, Indian judges noted that if the right to vote is a statutory one then the right to reject a candidate is also a right under the constitution’s right to freedom of expression. The judgement said: “Negative voting will lead to a systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates.”
The NOTA vote does not impact the results in India, because even if it gets the majority of votes, the candidate who places second is elected to that seat. However, it shows that the electorate is unhappy enough to turn up and vote, rather than stay home.
I have been coming across more people, especially young folks, who are so disillusioned with the political system in Pakistan that they think their vote doesn’t matter; that decisions will still be made in Rawalpindi. This, coupled with the media’s apathy towards reporting on ‘the real issues’, as young Shahrukh from Dadu told me in an email, doesn’t inspire any hope about moving towards a participatory democracy. He said he doesn’t see himself or his peers’ issues represented in the media. He gets his news from Imran Riaz Khan on YouTube.
It is unfortunate that mainstream media has not reported on the disillusionment among Pakistan’s voters. I watched with interest TV’s coverage of the local body elections in Karachi, and it was the same old horse-race style coverage — ie, ‘who is up/down’ — which trivialises what matters to, or impacts, the electorate. The American historian Bruce Bartlett said “the horse race is all that matters to the major media”.
The mainstream political parties too don’t seem to recognise people’s disenchantment. It is all various shades of the same sloganeering. Privately, political party members grumble to journalists about the inertia within the ranks. While I think Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has a firmer grasp of the country’s changing dynamics and demographics, and can read the room better than his other dynastic counterparts (minus that terrible call on those expensive sneakers), I don’t see that translating into a new vote bank. He doesn’t have mine.
There are an innumerable number of people who crave change and deserve effective representation. And it won’t come from parties that offer Ishaq Dar or Shaukat Tarin as solutions or saviours. The NOTA vote will allow the powerful elite in the twin cities to gauge just how disinterested — and even angry — the voters are. It is not a wasted or spoiler vote. It is a chance for citizens to be heard.
The NOTA vote is often credited with leading to the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990 elections. President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that “NOTA helped convince the people they had real power even in a rigged election and played a role in building a true democracy”. I believe many Pakistanis want a semblance of a true democracy. NOTA is a vote bank, they send a message to the political establishment and can mobilise change. The inclusion of a NOTA box can increase participation in the voting process too.
On a lighter note: I think a lot of readers will enjoy — and relate to — a line said in an explainer video by the Indian media outlet Quint: “If the neta is khota, todabau NOTA” (If the politician is a defect, then choose NOTA).
The writer is a co-producer and co-host of On/Off The Record, a podcast on the news media landscape in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2023
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