Updated Jul 18, 2018 10:37am

Thinking of not voting in Pakistan's elections? Think again

Sarah Khan

The weeks leading up to the 2018 general elections have involved violent terrorist attacks on political meetings, arrests of party workers, curtailments on press freedom and reasonable skepticism among political parties and observers about the existence of a fair playing field.

Taken together, it is more than enough to fuel a general sense of cynicism about the democratic process and a loss of faith in the legitimacy of the upcoming election.

As a political scientist working on a project on women’s voter participation, the news from Peshawar, Bannu and Mastung made me wonder whether designing interventions to encourage women to turn out to vote was a disingenuous exercise under the circumstances.

Political scientists have a name for this phenomenon: deliberate disengagement. On the one hand, evidence from advanced democracies suggests that more educated citizens are more likely to participate in politics.

However, a study from the electoral authoritarian context of Zimbabwe shows that educated voters tend to participate at lower rates.

The authors of the study argue that this may be because “education increases critical capacities, political awareness, and support for democracy” and in a situation where freedoms are curbed, “educated citizens may believe that participation is futile or legitimizes autocrats.”

Related: For a democratic Pakistan, more power needs to be given to local governments

Indeed, it is challenging to study the very behaviour in which you are participating. Good science demands some level of objectivity and distance; civic engagement requires commitment and personal investment. Studying Pakistani politics means staying up-to-date on political developments.

But being informed about the repressive environment and acutely aware of its dangers makes it especially difficult to remain optimistic about the prospects of political participation. I could sense a similar tension plaguing many others I interacted with in Pakistan.

How do we begin to reconcile this tension with the impetus to go out and cast our votes on 25 July? The notion that voting is a civic duty is well and good, but it does little to help adjudicate whether voting can really have any positive consequences.

Luckily, we live in a research-rich world when it comes to Pakistani politics to help adjudicate exactly this question.

More and more scholars in Pakistan and around the world are testing theories of democratic politics using evidence from Pakistan, developing new theoretical models, and helping us understand the nuances of the political landscape like never before (for a review of recent research on the political economy of Pakistan see here).

What some of this research provides us is evidence-based reasons to be cautiously optimistic that the continued democratic process in Pakistan — hurdles, hiccups, and fatal threats aside — is yielding some positive outcomes.

Electoral competition matters for legislators’ financial behaviour

Analysis of recently released tax payment data of 2018 electoral candidates indicates that average tax payments are on the rise.

Importantly, among incumbent legislators who are running for re-election, this growth in tax payments is concentrated in competitive electoral constituencies.

This is in line with previous findings from a study of legislators’ tax payments for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years, which finds that tax payments of competitively-elected legislators increased at a significantly higher rate than those of other legislators.

Electoral competition matters for service delivery and spending

Research on municipal service provision in the Lahore district shows that urban citizens’ access to services improves when there is greater competition at the provincial and national constituency level and politicians have a greater incentive to respond to local demands.

This mirrors findings from other countries; for instance, research from Mexico shows that greater electoral competition was associated with higher spending on primary education between 1999-2004.

This is especially salient given that one of the key issue raised by civil society around the upcoming election has been that of education reform in Pakistan.

Who gets elected matters for security

One reason for disillusionment from the electoral process is the perception that all parties are essentially the same and it does not really matter who ends up in power.

A new study using data on elections and violence from 1988-2011 suggests that levels of violence depend on which party gets elected, and the electoral pressures they face from their support bases.

Read next: Good sifarish, bad sifarish: A look at PML-N's selective anti-corruption drive

The evidence points a common direction: competition matters. Competition can incentivise elected legislators to behave better and deliver more; and it can push opposing candidates and parties to try just a little harder.

So how do we increase electoral competition? One side of this are political parties and candidates. Competition is greater when more parties and candidates are vying for office.

The emergence of strong new parties at the national and provincial levels is a rare event due to high barriers to entry: successfully entering national level politics requires significant resources.

However, it is somewhat easier at the local level where barriers to entry are lower — recent research from village-level elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shows that a simple conversation can be effective in convincing citizens, who wouldn’t otherwise consider it, to stand in elections.

The very real and present threat to the health of Pakistan’s democracy is the purposive dampening of electoral competition through practices that essentially constitute pre-poll rigging.

Editorial: Power of the vote

But staying home on election day won’t help. Low turnout in this election can only further dampen competition.

Repressive environments have a real psychological impact yielding feelings of disempowerment among citizens.

But competition remains a real lever of pressure that the ordinary citizen can exercise.

We must vote to keep this competition alive, and the pressure high on our representatives.

It is on this faith, backed by evidence, that I’ll be casting my vote on 25 July.


Are you a political scientist with insights on Pakistani democracy? Share them with us at blog@dawn.com

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