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The missing half

October 15, 2012

RECENTLY, in a long-awaited move, Chief Election Commissioner Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim proposed that election results be annulled if it were to turn out that a minimum threshold of 10 per cent of women’s vote had not been met at the polling stations.

However, within days of the announcement, political parties expressed reservations about the proposal. Yet the political parties’ opposition to such a measure runs contrary to the performance of female legislators. The Fair and Free Election Network (Fafen) recently issued a report on the performance of female legislators which shows that they are outperforming their male counterparts in initiating and sponsoring private members’ bills, calling attention notices and tabling questions.

According to the figures released in March, female legislators — despite constituting 23 per cent of the National Assembly — were instrumental in authoring 20 out of 53 private members’ bills, tabling 1196 questions (51 per cent of the total) and raising 76 out of 97 notices calling for attention over the last year.

Despite this sterling performance, the provincial administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa brought in the Local Government Act in May, which reduced the number of seats reserved for women in local government bodies. The patriarchal mindset which rules our political parties is on display currently, too, in response to the 10 per cent threshold proposal.

Nevertheless, both the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) proposal and the political parties’ lukewarm response to it have not appeared out of thin air. In recent years, civil society representatives as well as election-related bodies have exposed a systematic pattern whereby through intimidation or agreement between political parties, women have been barred from exercising their right to vote on more than one occasion. The most illustrative case, which created ripples in the press, was in January 2011 in a Shangla by-election during which only 900 of more than 59,000 female voters cast their votes. This exclusion was engineered by major political parties through a written agreement which sought to prevent women from voting, and the resultant exit of polling staff at female polling stations.

This was not the first time such a manoeuvre was undertaken. Complaints of women being prevented from voting were reported from a Dera Ismail Khan provincial by-election in 2005 and from Musakhel in November 2010. What lifted the Shangla episode to national consciousness was the robustness of civil society’s election-observation advocacy expertise. While the Shangla episode led to consistent demand for measures to prevent such blatant disenfranchisement of women from occurring, it also caught political parties acting unlawfully and violating party manifestoes that are heavy on the rhetoric of gender equality, empowerment and participation. Worse, none of the parties thought it fit to discipline their workers.

As in the past, political parties are now resisting the implementation of the 10 per cent measure on the time-worn grounds of culture and logistics. However, neither of these arguments ring true. Take the culturalist argument first. In Shangla, women’s turnout in earlier elections has been higher. This means that women are eager to vote and participate in the political process when allowed unfettered choice; they do not find culture a barrier that cannot be breached. Female voters are made to disappear only if they are forcibly prevented from exercising their right. Likewise, logistics can be sorted out by merely energising the election machinery and the political parties, as is happening in the US where the Democrats are pulling out all stops to mobilise and transport their voters to the polling stations on election day.

By dithering over a reform as fundamental as the 10 per cent female-vote threshold, political parties are advancing a Ziaist agenda of promoting patriarchy and a masculine social and political culture in which women are prevented from exercising their agency. Although political parties are making efforts to broaden the participation of women in political parties, this exercise is in danger of becoming merely a token effort with the female leadership being fenced inside the silos of women’s wings.

Not surprisingly, this culture is manifest in the wider processes of women’s electoral participation; political parties have consistently ignored women as an organised voting bloc. According to researcher Tahir Mehdi, women’s presence on the electoral rolls has steadily decreased over the decades even though men and women are each pegged at 50 per cent of the population. Since 1988, when the female vote constituted 86.9 per cent as compared to the male vote, it is now 73.8 per cent.

Worryingly, this is consistent with the most recent electoral roll published, which shows the absence of 11 million women from the electoral roll as pointed out by Shahid Fiaz of the Asia Foundation (though some progress in boosting women’s presence on the lists has lately been reported). Against this setting, a 10 per cent threshold is a very sensible suggestion and ought to have been taken up readily by political parties. Where political parties or candidates drag their feet on the set threshold, civil society representatives and other groups should be allowed to bring in an election petition to this effect.

In addition to this measure, the ECP should come up with other ways of gathering gender-disaggregated data which would show long-term trends in female voting patterns in different constituencies. This single step forward can lead to far-reaching changes in the culture and tenor of the country’s politics and interventions can be planned accordingly. As shown by the Fafen data, the proportionate ‘feminisation’ of parliament and the electoral rolls is likely to improve democratic governance and bolster the sanctity and representatives of democratic elections.

The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.