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Respect adult franchise

August 09, 2012


THE exclusion of a sizeable number of citizens eligible to vote from the final electoral list is far more serious a matter than has so far been given out. It touches upon the people’s right to adult franchise.

There can be no lack of appreciation for the efforts the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has made to prepare error-free electoral rolls. Further, the assumption of the Chief Election Commissioner’s (CEC) office by Justice Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim has boosted hopes that calls for guarantees of a democratic electoral process will not go unheeded. The ECP’s announcement that it will try to accommodate all voters left out is welcome.

What is an error-free list of voters? It is not enough to say that the list should not have names of people who do not exist or that there should be no multiple entries. On the one hand the list should not include names of people who are not entitled to vote (aliens, under-18 citizens) and, on the other, no one qualified to vote must be left unregistered. While much noise has been made about the first condition, the second one has received much less attention.

It has been argued, and apparently rightly, that the total figure of 84.39 million voters in the final rolls is 14 to 20 million heads less than the official count for the 18 and above population. This argument has not been rebutted. Instead, counter-arguments have been developed around the flaws in the earlier 2007 list. It is claimed that after the deletion of 37 million ‘bogus voters’ from the 2007 list there were only 44 million voters on the rolls and now the number has almost doubled; hence the list is complete. It is obvious that this plea is untenable.

The roots of the present confusion lie in last year’s hullabaloo about ‘bogus voters’ in the 2007 rolls. On a Supreme Court directive the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) was asked to check the authenticity of the voters’ list and it reported that it had no record of about 37 million voters.

The sensational nature of the claim neutralised the critical faculties of most regular observers. Democracy was running at a heavy discount and anything that could be used to discredit politicians and parliament was lapped up as manna. It would be interesting to find out how many of the 37 million ‘ghost’ voters have now been accepted as legitimate. It is not fair to reject all comparisons with the 2007 list.

The ECP must not ignore the explosive issues that could arise if the matter of exclusion of 14 to 20 million voters from the list is not resolved, especially since a large number of complaints have been reported from Balochistan and Sindh. The nationalists there are already crying foul.

A special cause for anxiety is the under-registration of female voters. Out of the total 84.39 million voters, 47.7 million are men and 36.5 million women. That is, women constitute 43 per cent of the electorate while men are 56.5 per cent. The woman-man ratio in Pakistan has never been correctly worked out. Women’s rights activists claim they constitute more than 50 per cent of the population, the gurus of statistics say they are fewer than men. Even if one accepts the conservative ratio of 94 women to 100 men their share in the electoral list should not be less than 48 per cent.

The most serious instance of the under-registration of women is in Fata where women account for only 33.12 per cent of the electorate. In Mohmand Agency the number of female voters is less than half the male.

Non-possession of computerised national identity cards (CNICs) seems to be the main reason for non-registration. Many have been unable to benefit from Nadra facilities which may itself have failed to reach many others. Also, a large number of women have not been registered because the patriarchs don’t allow women to be photographed or don’t want them to vote. There can also be other reasons for opting out of the electoral process (Ahmadis, for instance).

Where people are aware of their duty to join the electoral process and everybody has an identification card, the state may have some justification for ignoring the irresponsible ones. But can this be done in Pakistan where many are not free or able to acquire a CNIC, where we know women’s enrolment as voters is prevented and where Ahmadis refused to be enrolled because of their exclusion from the joint electorate scheme? Our state has a clear obligation to take affirmative action to have all eligible persons registered as voters.

Was any special effort made to fight anti-women biases in Fata, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan? A concerted campaign to enrol women in these areas should have been conducted. The need for such a campaign is still there. Likewise, the ECP cannot just sit idle on the basis that Ahmadis remain out of the electoral process by choice. They had been rejecting registration in the past because they did not want to be lumped with religious minorities. After the revival of the joint electorate in 2002 this problem should have been resolved. What is the hitch now?

Nadra has asked the political parties to avail of its facilities and get the people left out registered as voters after having their CNICs made. That is a correct move. But Nadra is a contractor for a technical job; it cannot relieve the ECP of its responsibility.

It need not be forgotten that democratic opinion has not withdrawn its reservations on the scheme of the CNIC being made a condition for casting votes or for getting oneself enrolled as a voter. Getting enrolled and casting one’s vote are both fundamental rights and the procedure for identification cannot be used to extinguish these rights. It is only when the state has ensured the removal of all obstacles to enrolment and voting that it can claim to have established respect for adult franchise. At the moment, this claim is rather tenuous.