WITH general elections scheduled for Feb 8, the coming weeks will see political parties swing into electioneering mode to rally support for the contest ahead. The announcement of an election date ended the prolonged political uncertainty in the country. But doubts persist about whether the election would be free and fair.
It is unclear if the polls will be inclusive and whether there will be a level playing field for everyone to contest freely. Doubts have been reinforced by the renewed, ongoing wave of arrests of members of Imran Khan’s PTI. Nearly all its top leaders are now in jail. The party has conveyed a list of obstacles to the Election Commission of Pakistan which it argues will constrain its ability to freely conduct its election campaign.
An opinion survey conducted by Gallup-Pakistan in June 2023 found only a quarter of Pakistanis expressed enough confidence in the fairness and transparency of the upcoming election.
The majority of respondents had little faith in the integrity of the polls. This kind of public scepticism can deter voter participation and contribute to a low voter turnout, which can undermine the election’s legitimacy. That makes it imperative for the election to be credible and transparent.
Pakistan’s history of disputed elections offers a cautionary tale about the destabilising consequences of electoral exercises marred by irregularities and ballot fraud. If the February election becomes controversial in another exercise in what is euphemistically called ‘political engineering’ it will undermine political and economic stability, which Pakistan can ill afford.
The country today faces a multiplicity of challenges — weak governance, economic stagnation, mounting inflation, rising threats to internal security, education deficit, uncontrolled population growth and erosion of the institutional capacity of the apparatus of governance.
These vexing issues need to be urgently addressed. The electorate’s expectation is for participants in the electoral race to offer solutions to these problems, especially how the country can achieve economic recovery. The public want political leaders to lay out a road map of where they want to take the country.
This should urge politicians to see the election not just as a means to secure power but an opportunity to empower themselves to meet the country’s challenges. This is especially because politics in recent years has increasingly been issue-less, focused on power struggles and denigration of opponents rather than matters of public concern.
A fractured vote can deny any single party a majority and produce a hung parliament.
It is much too early to assess where parties stand on different issues and whether their leaders have given careful thought to issues pivotal to Pakistan’s economic and political future. Party manifestos have yet to be issued. But they are usually full of platitudes, which makes them indistinguishable between parties.
Will parties now inject substance into their manifestos and offer a coherent, implementable programme given the imposing challenges Pakistan faces today? Also important is how seriously political leaders will speak to the country’s challenges and spell out their policy priorities during the campaign.
At least three aspects of the election will be noteworthy. The first is voter turnout. This could be an important indicator of how free and open the electoral process is perceived by people. A low turnout would have a bearing on the strength or otherwise of the winning party’s mandate to govern.
Turnout in past elections has ranged between 51 per cent (2018), 53pc (2013), 44pc (2008) and 41pc (2002). The lowest — in 2002 — reflected the electorate’s lack of confidence in an election held under military rule, which was neither deemed to be free nor fair. If turnout drops considerably below, say, 44pc, those who secure public office by a minority vote resting on a low turnout will have questionable representative credentials.
The second key factor in the upcoming elections will be the youth vote. The July 2023 figures from the ECP show that voters between the ages of 18 to 35 constitute 45pc of the electorate — 57,095,197 out of 126,980,272 (latest unpublished statistic on the size of the electorate is around 128 million).
This reflects the country’s youthful demographic profile and makes young voters a significant factor in determining the election outcome. ECP statistics also show that about 22m new voters have been added to the electoral rolls since the 2018 election. That’s a significant 18pc of the electorate. Most are young, first-time voters. Who they vote for will be consequential to the result.
Another area to watch would be the expected four-way fight in the battleground province of Punjab — primarily between PML-N and PTI, but with the PPP (in a much weaker position in the province) and the newish Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (comprising mostly deserters from PTI) also in the fray. It is too soon to say how alignments and seat-adjustment deals will shape the contest. But if it is a four-cornered race, marginal seats would be even more fiercely contested.
There is a sizeable number of marginal and tightly fought seats in Pakistan’s first-past-the-post system. Well over 100 National Assembly seats were won by a plurality, not majority of votes in the 2018 election. Eighty-seven National Assembly seats were won by a margin of less than 1,000 votes, and 26 seats by a margin of under 2,000 votes.
In 51 constituencies, the winning candidate’s margin of victory was under 6,000 votes. Most of these were in Punjab — where general elections are won or lost. With the average size of Punjab’s national constituencies around 900,000 today, these are fragile margins of victory.
Given these margins, young voters can tip the outcome if they participate in the election in significant numbers. In any case, the prospect of vote splintering will make the result in many constituencies harder to predict than in the past. More importantly, a fractured vote can deny any single party a majority and make another hung parliament likely.
With elections less than three months away, a mixture of hope and anxiety characterises the public mood. Hope that the election will end the drift and disarray of recent years and provide a fresh mandate to the winning party to tackle Pakistan’s challenges. But also, apprehension that if the election is not inclusive and lacks integrity it will denude the country of the stability it desperately needs.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2023