Why vote?

Published February 5, 2024
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

RECENT conversations about the upcoming election with university students reflect various degrees of disillusionment and despondency.

For many, voting in an election tarred by a compromised pre-election phase, and an entirely uneven playing field, appears to be a futile act. Actions of the past few months to politically marginalise the PTI and its leaders make it seem like the result is a foregone conclusion. Fair to ask, then, what’s the point of voting, or even having such an election?

The case for voting can be made a number of different ways, as can the case for having an election. But it is worth remembering that people’s relationship to politics in Pakistan differs by class, region, ethnicity, and gender. The case for participation and the importance of an election thus varies widely too.

For voters in rural areas, especially in Punjab, sitting out of an election because of despondency is not a real option. In a five-year cycle, and with the persisting absence of local governments, elections provide the only instrument for negotiating local services and access to the state.

One can plausibly argue that the negotiation for publicly funded projects is done by local elites and for the benefit of local elites, but it is the only time any money will flow into rural communities. This is also why perceptions of a candidate’s chances of winning have a greater impact in shaping the direction of rural voting blocs.

Even in the past, when establishment interference and party crackdowns have taken place, rural turnouts were generally higher than urban ones. Given that politics is organised around local, dynastic families, cascading down from National Assembly and provincial assembly candidates all the way to mini-dynasts at the union council and village level, election-phase contact is higher and the effort to bring voters out is greater.

The anonymity of the voting process is not perfect in Pakistan, but it still offers a chance for throwing up surprises.

In Sindh and KP, elections and the act of voting carry an additional logic, which is that of federalist assertion and cultural expression. This is naturally more pronounced in Sindh, where the PPP campaigns on an explicit platform of provincial autonomy and rights, but even in KP, where the PTI is dominant, there remains an undercurrent of ethno-cultural identity that binds its vote together. In other words, voting remains an expressive act beyond just a strategic or tactical act.

Hence to even consider opting out of the electoral process in some way reveals a relative degree of class and ethnic insulation from the consequences of politics. Most of the country does not have this luxury.

Beyond using the vote as a tool for negotiation or as one for expression, another reason to stay engaged through the ballot box is simply to increase uncertainty around the result. This is much more important when a pre-ordained conclusion is being pushed down from above. As several have written on these pages earlier, the anonymity of the voting process is not perfect in Pakistan, but it still offers a chance for throwing up surprises.

The fact that nearly every adult has access to a cell phone, and that many have access to video-recording capabilities, the likelihood of ballot box stuffing going unnoticed is not very high. In earlier years, the general conception was that rural polling stations can be manipulated by closing them off and moving ballot boxes to undisclosed locations, especially in areas where an unfavoured candidate was posting larger numbers. Something similar was attempted in the Daska by-election a few years ago, and the entire act was transparently caught on video.

Past elections, even when managed through pre-poll ‘adjustments’, have often produced some unexpected results, such as losses of major political figures and parties doing surprisingly better than expected. As an act of resistance, it forces the powers that be to revise their strategies and compels them to think of alternatives.

The existence of electoral opposition to even the best-laid and most carefully planned schemes is one of the reasons why no regime has managed to continue endlessly without collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Finally, Imran Khan’s continued incarceration and his disqualification is also being cited as a reason for deepening disillusionment. This view, held usually by a segment of his supporters, is that their leader is not going to be allowed back into the political system.

This view goes against the general trend of Pakistan’s political history, especially its recent history. What we have seen repeatedly is that popular support in any shape or form is enough to sustain the political career of politicians, who may have fallen out of favour with the establishment. As long as they command a following, and as long as that following remains reasonably intact enough to keep them relevant on the electoral scene, there will always be a pathway back to power.

The simple reality is that Pakistan’s political system is prone to repeated crises because no one entity — upper-class civilian politicians or the military — has a critical mass of both legitimacy and strength to overpower the entire system. One needs the other to survive in an environment where the economic pie keeps shrinking, and fights over the shrinking pie become more combative.

The entire life cycle of any ‘understanding’ between a section of the political class and the establishment is no more than a couple of years. Conflict between two competing nodes of power is a guaranteed outcome of the way that this hybrid system functions. Today’s favourites will inevitably be tomorrow’s pariahs.

So to keep your favourite in the shot for another stint in power down the line, showcasing support today is necessary. A rigged election might not provide a pathway into power immediately, but a few million votes will keep them in the race for a return when the new regime eventually falls apart.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

X: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2024

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