What to watch for on Feb 8

Published February 5, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

PAKISTAN goes to the polls this week in an exceedingly fraught atmosphere marked by uncertainty about the future. In the country’s 12th general election a record number of 128.5 million voters will decide who forms the next government.

Punjab, of course, has more voters — 73.2m — than those in the other three provinces put together, which makes it the battleground province that will determine the outcome of the national election.

There are 5,113 candidates in the contest for 266 general seats of the 342-member Lower House in the country’s first-past-the-post system. A total number of 12,638 candidates are in the run for assembly seats in the four provinces. There are 313 female contenders for National Assembly seats, the highest ever, but still only 6pc of the total, while 568 female candidates are in the race for provincial assembly seats.

What are the key pointers to watch out for on election day?

Voter turnout: How many people show up at the ballot box will reflect the level of political engagement as well as the health and vitality of Pakistan’s democracy. It will also be a significant indicator of how credible and inclusive the electorate sees the polls, especially in view of widespread public doubts about their fairness.

The average turnout in the last two general elections was around 52pc. In the past four elections it ranged between 51pc (2018), 53pc (2013), 44pc (2008) and 41pc (2002). In the 1990s, which saw four elections in quick succession starting with the one in 1988, turnout averaged 42pc, except in 1997 when it fell to 36pc. In general, turnout usually dropped when people felt their vote would make no difference to the outcome or that the election was ‘pre-determined’. This time if turnout is very low it could indicate a lack of confidence in the election’s integrity and thus undermine the legitimacy of the result.

There will be many indicators on election day of what the outcome might be.

Young voters: The youth bulge among registered voters is now a prominent feature of the electoral landscape. The number of young voters (between ages 18 and 35) today is at a record high — 57m, which is over 47pc of the electorate. This is a potential game-changer.

The heavy presence of young people in queues at polling stations might provide an early indication of how well parties with a youth following will do. In past elections, turnout among younger voters has been low. There are no official statistics on this. But a Gallup Pakistan report, relying on exit polls conducted since 1988, found that usually only a quarter of young voters cast the ballot.

In the past two elections, their participation was a third compared to the average overall turnout of 52pc. But according to the latest youth survey by the Voice of America, 70pc of respondents said they will vote on Feb 8.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests young people are now more motivated to vote. If they do show up in large numbers, it could produce upsets and defy conventional wisdom about the invincibility of ‘electables’ or locally influential candidates.

New voters: Over 23.5m new voters have been added to the electoral rolls since the 2018 election, including over 12m female voters. Thus, new voters constitute 18pc of the electorate. They mostly comprise young voters but possibly also older voters not registered before. This could impart a significant swing factor to the election because many of them may be unaffiliated to any party and open to last-minute canvassing by candidates. This could make the outcome unpredictable in several constituencies.

Women’s participation: 59.3m registered female voters comprise 46.1pc of the electorate even though they account for 49pc of the population. Male voters are 69.2m or 54pc of the electorate. That means there are around 10m more male than female voters, which lays bare the electorate’s persisting gender gap.

Nevertheless, this gap has been steadily narrowing thanks to initiatives by the Election Commission of Pakistan and advocacy groups to increase women’s participation. On voter turnout the gender gap persists. In the 2018 election turnout among women trailed by 10pc from that of men. Male turnout was almost56pc for the NA election, but just over 46pc for female voters.

It would be worth watching whether women’s polling stations on Feb 8 will see longer lines to indicate greater participation which could benefit parties with a stronger female base of support.

Marginal seats: A critical area to watch would be the marginal constituencies. There is a sizeable number of tightly fought seats in Pakistan’s first-past-the-post system. Well over 100 NA seats were won by a plurality, not majority of votes in the 2018 election. Eighty-seven NA 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. The overall election result could be determined by what happens in these marginal constituencies, where there may be four-cornered fights between PML-N, PTI-backed candidates, PPP and IPP.

Sensitive polling stations: Half of the 90,675 polling stations across the country have been designated as ‘sensitive’ or ‘most sensitive’ by the ECP. Sensitive means there is a security risk; ‘most sensitive’ denotes a higher risk. Around 27,628 are classified as sensitive and 18,437 as most sensitive, the majority of which are in Punjab followed by Sindh, KP and Balochistan.

That means these polling stations are vulnerable to election violence involving clashes among supporters or attacks by militant groups — the latter principally in KP and Balochistan. Although extra security arrangements are in place for them, they should be closely watched on election day for violence that could disrupt the process.

Of course, the most important aspect of election day would be any instances and evidence of efforts to manipulate the poll result or ballot fraud. That would undermine the democratic exercise, denude the electoral outcome of legitimacy and plunge Pakistan into another period of instability.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2024

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