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Disenfranchised: the refugee voter

April 17, 2013

Internally displaced people of Pakistan. -Photo by AP

As the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) completes its scrutiny of who is allowed or able to run and vote in the elections, much indicates that come May 11 Pakistan’s approximately 750,000 internal refugees might find themselves effectively disenfranchised.

Most of Pakistan’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) do not live in refugee camps — the site where the ECP is planning to set up polling booths for those forced to leave their home constituencies against their will.

According to Sono Khan Baloch, the Provincial Election Commissioner for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the ECP is only planning to set up polling booths in Nowshera’s Jalozai camp, which houses fewer than 12,500 IDPs according to its camp administrator Noor Akbar Khan. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the total number of IDPs in Pakistan stood at 750,000 people at the end of 2012 because of fighting between militants and the military in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). The recent takeover of Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency by militant leader Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has meant that the number has increased by an additional 5,200 families, or 40,600 people.

“Preparing voter lists for IDPs is an incredibly difficult challenge, but we are confident that the refugees at these camps will have an opportunity to vote,” says Mr Baloch when Dawn visited him in his office in Peshawar.

“Polling booths in refugee camps essentially become ghost stations — a bureaucratic ploy to pretend like the IDPs have gotten a chance to vote,” says Ali Imran, a faculty member at the University of Peshawar’s department of journalism.

“Most IDPs do not live in refugee camps. They have gone to stay with friends or family at best, and makeshift tents in big city slums at worst — which includes cities like Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi,” says Mr Imran, who adds that these refugees are effectively invisible to the ECP as they prepare their voting lists, since voters have to be present in the constituencies where they are registered to vote.

“A lot of the IDPs are also settled in areas that are difficult to access — areas that are still within the tribal areas, but outside their constituencies. So yes, the ECP is not taking those people into consideration who are settled outside of Jalozai camp,” says Fazal Tawaf Khan, former vice chairman of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council.

IDPs excluded in 2008 Mr Baloch says that the ECP set up polling booths for refugees from Waziristan in the last election. “Contrary to what most people think, the ECP made it possible for refugees in Dera Ismail Khan to vote. For some reason, however, not a single person came to vote,” he says.

According to Mr Imran, the polling booths in Dera Ismail Khan was “yet another attempt by the ECP to pretend that they were doing their job.”

“Remember, most of the refugees in Dera Ismail Khan were from the Mehsud tribe, and therefore from South Waziristan or NA-41. NA-41 did not have elections in 2008 because of the law and order situation. You would expect an election commissioner to know that — are they trying to make this out to be a joke? They were ghost polling booths that were there for show, not an actual or sincere attempt to ensure that IDPs could cast their vote and be represented.”

The courts first took notice of IDPs voting situation in November 2012, when Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan took up the matter in the Peshawar High Court (PHC), and summoned the ECP to explain how they planned to address the situation. Other than ensuring that polling booths would be set up in official refugee camps, the PHC also ensured that the National Database and Registration Authority was given the mandate to issue duplicate National Identity Cards if people had left them behind in a hurry to leave their homes. However, even Muhammad Khan’s move might be insufficient.

Mr Baloch admits that ensuring the IDP votes is an enormous challenge. “Most of these voters are dispersed across the country. That makes preparing voter lists far more difficult,” he says.  “We are trying our best, but we are still working on it.”

Turnout in Fata is historically low. According to data from the 2008 election, only 31 per cent or approximately 400,000 of the over one million people who were eligible to vote cast their ballot. Authorities have also had difficulty ensuring sufficient registration. Numbers indicate that female voters are underrepresented in the voting statistics. In the current voter rolls available on the ECP website, almost 1,800,000 Pakistanis from Fata can take part on May 11. However, this number includes barely 600,000 women. According to Mr Baloch, dynamics unrelated to the ECP’s organisation might cause disenfranchisement of voters.

“There is no reason to assume that we cannot prepare something to ensure that every Pakistani citizen has a chance to vote. But there is little doubt that this is always a challenging exercise,” says Mr Baloch.