Pakistan’s electoral system — an illusion of true representation

Winning parties often mirror only a fraction of registered voters, leaving the fate of the majority hanging in the balance. Urgent reforms, including compulsory voting, are required to restore true democracy and represent the will of the people.
Published February 5, 2024

The brazen tactics — by the triumvirate of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the caretaker federal and provincial governments Punjab in particular and the judiciary (with only some exceptions), backed by the euphemism known as the establishment — are in full public view for anyone who wants to see.

Consequently, a major political party, PTI, is being prevented from formal participation, while its leader, a former prime minister has been convicted in three different cases over the last one week alone. This is only one reason why the upcoming polls will be yet another non-representative expression of the Pakistani people’s political views. At the same time, I would love to be proved wrong.

At the outset, let this be noted: this writer is not a member of the PTI. In fact, on several instances, I have completely disagreed with the PTI’s decisions and policies. Yet, the way in which major political parties and other institutions have acted against the PTI, just before April 2022 and after, violates irreducible norms of fairness, decency, and impartiality.

Notwithstanding the bizarre, reprehensible actions of some elements on May 9, 2023 — still not independently investigated and verified — the victimisation of PTI, as also the unrelated, yet contextually pertinent disregard for the ongoing protests in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan are sources of profound unease, be they directly or indirectly related to the subject of this reflection.

Non-representative polls

Notwithstanding the above, one of the principal reasons for the persistent anomaly of electoral systems and results over the last 53 years is that in six out of 11 general elections, the average voter turnout has stood at around 45 per cent. This means that more than half of the eligible voters in the country never recorded their preferences. Meanwhile, in the five other elections, though the turnout was over 50pc, it never reached a two-third majority or more — a reasonably representative, though not complete portrait of reality.

In this writer’s view, the minimal turnout to validate an election should be at least 75pc, which is equivalent to the margin required to make a constitutional amendment in most democracies.

In other South Asian countries, on average in the recent past, though just two countries’ turnouts have reached over 75pc, only Afghanistan with 35-40pc was lower than Pakistan. Sri Lanka and the Maldives stood at 78pc, with Nepal at 69pc, and India and Bhutan at 66pc. Even Iran in West Asia managed 60pc.

Various factors shape voter turnout, the leading one being faith in the integrity of the electoral system followed by convenient access to polling stations (to be fair to Pakistan, one estimate claims that the average voter — the majority — can reach their respective polling station in about 10 minutes from their place of residence).

Other factors include conditions of law and order in and around polling locations, sheer apathy or lack of confidence in available choices, prejudice against women casting votes, and many more. All of these, collectively or individually, have contributed to Pakistan’s low voter turnout rates.

First past the post

One of the major reasons for our polls having always been non-representative of the majority of public opinion is the use of the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. This was inherited from Westminster in 1947 and like the real as well as the exaggerated sanctity of parliamentary democracy, the system has not been altered or replaced.

In essence, it means that when a candidate secures even one vote more than the next highest-scoring competitor, that candidate is the winner. However, that winner’s tally is often, if not always less than the total number of votes cast against him/her and in favour of all the other losing candidates. And to top it all, with only half or less than half of total registered voters turning up to vote, that winner-by-a-single-vote represents a small minority of the whole spectrum. But in FPTP, that candidate is rewarded with the honour of representing all those who not only voted against them, but also those who never voted at all.

The fact that the UK, USA, India, Bangladesh, and many others follow this distorted system does not reduce the absurdity or the anomaly. In one extreme case, I happened to be in New York a few years ago when I read that the District Attorney for Queens was elected with a voter turnout of only 9pc.

In Pakistan, and elsewhere, the anomaly also applies to the share of votes secured by political parties. For instance, in 2018, the PTI received about 32pc of votes cast — 16.9 million votes. But in the context of total registered votes, that figure shrinks to only about 15pc. And the same applies to PML-N whose real share of the total registered votes was about 9pc while the PPP was barely 5pc. Yet, all three parties go hoarse claiming to represent, especially now in 2024, the 240 million people of Pakistan!

Thus, neither individual candidates nor national level political parties have ever been authentically representative of the majority of votes cast on polling day, let alone representative of the total registered voters. Another consequence of the FPTP system is that the number of seats gained can be disproportionate to the votes received. A fine, not-so-fine example is next door in India. The Hindutva-fired BJP received only about 37.36pc of the votes cast in 2019. Even with its allies in the NDA, they together received only 45pc of the cast votes. Yet they obtained a vast majority of 353 seats out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. In other words, the majority of Indian voters voted against the BJP, but have had to suffer its excesses for the past five years.

A brief foray into our history is perhaps relevant. In the 1970 polls, the total turnout, as cited earlier, was 59.8pc. But in East Pakistan, with 56.9pc, it was lower than Punjab at 68.7pc and Sindh at 60.1pc. Despite the unduly long 11-month election campaign and the Awami League’s success in making the Six-Points formula synonymous with Bengali identity, pride, and autonomy, as many as 43pc of East Pakistani voters did not turn out to vote. The terrible natural disasters of cyclones, tidal waves, and floods in previous months contributed to this outcome. Of those who did, about 11pc voted against the Awami League. So, the majority of East Pakistani voters did not vote for the Six-Points and the Awami League, but due to the FPTP system, the Awami League won 160 out of 162 seats in the National Assembly. Of course, the rest is history.

The way forward

This brings one to submit that there are two ways to correct the inherently flawed electoral system we use in Pakistan. The first is to make voting compulsory for every adult citizen. This writer’s proposal was originally published in an essay in Dawn on 15th August 2011. Earlier, during a meeting with a PILDAT group on another subject, when I conveyed this suggestion to then-PM Yousuf Raza Gilani, it was received, to my pleasant surprise, with very enthusiastic endorsement. It was accompanied by immediate instructions to his special assistant to follow up on this measure. Despite my subsequent efforts to remind the chief executive and his SA, no further action was taken. I regret not taking proactive steps to pursue this option with parliamentary committees and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), fostering a potential avenue for debate and eventual consensus.

Be that as it may, compulsory voting obligates every citizen to fulfill a basic duty to the democratic state they reside in. Voting is as fundamental a responsibility as paying income tax or driving on the right side of the road, and that too, with a license.

Apart from the obvious benefit that compulsory voting ensures — which is to make election results accurately reflective of the totality of public opinion — the measure also promotes the credibility, durability, and legitimacy of the governments elected at the federal and provincial levels.

Compulsory voting is practiced in over 20 countries with widely varying features. Though it is not a panacea for all ills, it has proven to be helpful for stability, participation, and productive outcomes. Countries that enforce compulsory voting include Australia, Singapore, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Belgium, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Egypt and others. The last named state is presently a military-dominated entity and its poll results are reported to not reflect reality. However, that does not invalidate the idea of compulsory voting.

The second step to make voting truly representative of the majority of voters is to make it essential for the winning candidate in a given constituency to secure a minimum of 50pc plus one vote of all registered/cast votes. (Note: due to various reasons, turnout even in compulsory voting countries can be less than the maximum of 100pc due to unforeseen last-minute problems or other such reasons). Only when the 50 pc plus one result is secured does the winner genuinely represent the majority of voters. If no candidate secures such a number in the first round, a second round should be held within, say, 5 or 6 days of the first round, wherein the top three vote-getters of the first round face each other again, enabling the leading candidate to achieve the winning majority figure.

For both the above recommendations, there are arguments in favour and against. There should be candid, comprehensive debate based on facts and evidence instead of sweeping assertions and emotive stands.

One crucial obstacle in the way of encouraging dialogue on making voting compulsory and the 50pc plus one vote requirement is the likely reluctance of those political individuals who are already part of the established political system. They win polls and exercise power or receive privileges even as opposition members of legislatures without needing to have all voters vote, nor having to receive, as in the case of members of ruling parties, the majority of votes are in their own constituencies.

It is only when legislators elected through the existing, flawed system are willing to make radical changes through the law amendments for the mode of their future election that it will be possible to introduce compulsory voting and the minimal majority-vote requirement.

We should desist from being skeptical or cynical about legislators in general. In many countries, including Pakistan, in past decades, elected politicians have periodically demonstrated the capacity to transcend traditional views and practices, or provincial, parochial, or partisan interests, and to cooperate for a larger, shared cause. Three instances come to mind, even though they are not related to electoral systems. Yet they reflect a record of remarkable flexibility for change, and readiness to sacrifice previously firmly-held views in favour of new laws and policies that promise optimal benefits for the whole nation. These are the inter-provincial Indus River Water Sharing Accord of 1991, the various National Finance Commission Awards, especially the Seventh Award of 2010-15, and the 18th Constitutional Amendment of 2010.

Meanwhile, the stage is set for the 2024 pantomime. And the performers are already going ahead at full steam. All leading parties are claiming to represent the 240 million people of Pakistan and the 128.9 million voters, even when the results are likely to show that the winning parties and candidates mirror only the minority of total registered votes and of all adult citizens. This begs the question: how many winners will come from the 40pc of the population reliably estimated to survive below the poverty line?

Header image created with AI