Why every vote counts?
Democracy, a government by and for the people, relies heavily on elections. In Pakistan, as a parliamentary democracy, elections are held at multiple levels, including national, provincial, and local governments. These elections empower the citizens to exercise their right to choose representatives across all tiers of government. Unlike other types of governance, democracy decentralises power, allowing the common man to have a say in decision-making. Through the "power of choosing," individuals participate in the governance process, shaping the direction of their community/nation. This fundamental aspect of democracy ensures that the government reflects the will and aspirations of the people it serves, promoting a more inclusive and representative society.
In order for citizens to make informed decisions during elections, administrative knowledge and judgement are crucial. It is essential that people exercise their right to vote responsibly, understanding the significance of their choices. After continuous delay, Pakistan is approaching the upcoming elections in October-November. It is hoped that this time, the current government, while facing various crises, does not resort to postponing the elections by declaring a state of emergency just before the completion of the national assembly's term in August 2023. Why delay in elections? Why can’t Pakistan draw inspiration from countries like Turkey that successfully conducted elections even in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake? Despite the significant challenges faced, Turkey prioritised democratic processes and demonstrated resilience.
Low voter turnout
When analysing citizen participation in elections, the voter turnout statistics reveal intriguing insights. Over the years, the number of registered voters in Pakistan has witnessed a steady increase. In the 2018 elections, Pakistan had 106 million registered voters. However, recent statistics released by the Election Commission of Pakistan in 2023 indicate that the number of registered voters has now reached 125 million. Despite this surge in registered voters, the question remains: How many individuals actually exercise their right to vote, known as voter turnout? Examining historical data from elections held in 1988, 1990, 1993, 1997, and 2002, an average voter turnout of 41% is observed. In 2008, the turnout was 44.23%, while in 2013, it increased to 55.02%. However, in 2018, it dropped to 51%. These figures indicate that a significant percentage of eligible voters choose not to cast their vote when observing the turnout rates over the years.
In the last elections 2018, the voter turnout was 51%
Voting Process Accesibility issues for Persons with Disabilities
As citizens and voters in Pakistan, participating in elections may appear daunting for the common person. One of the main principles of voting is that the voter is able to cast vote in secrecy, with independence and dignity. Several challenges can hinder the voting process, ranging from the absence of basic facilities like water and electricity at polling stations to missing names in voter lists, leading to unverified votes. Unfortunately, polling staff often fails to provide adequate guidance to voters in such situations. These difficulties are compounded for persons with disabilities (PWDs). Accessibility remains a major issue as polling stations are typically located to accommodate 1000 to 1200 registered voters. Wheelchair users and visually impaired individuals requiring assistance face barriers in entering the polling stations and casting their vote. Moreover, marginalised groups, including transgender individuals, endure social stigmas and the risk of facing inappropriate comments or stares when exercising their right to vote.
In Pakistan, these marginalised groups, along with PWDs, face significant societal challenges. To address these issues, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has issued guidelines to its polling staff, emphasising the need to facilitate voters from marginalised communities and PWDs. Despite these efforts, there are instances when individuals are still unable to exercise their right to vote due to the sheer number of voters and the limited time available.
Promoting Inclusivity and Diversity
However, the motivation to cast a vote stems from the realisations that this right holds immense power to shape the future and present of Pakistan. It is a means to bring about change and actively participate in the democratic process, ensuring that the voices of all citizens, including marginalised groups and PWDs, are heard and represented. While challenges persist, it is crucial for the government, election authorities, and society as a whole to work together to overcome these obstacles. By promoting inclusivity, providing necessary support and accessibility measures, and fostering a culture of respect and acceptance, Pakistan can ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to exercise their right to vote freely and without hindrance.
Voter Awareness Sessions with youth
With the support of Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives is actively engaged in promoting voter education by conducting awareness raising sessions in Universities such as Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women University and University of Peshawar etc. The sessions cover all topics that a voter should be familiar with, including eligibility criteria, voter registration and transfer procedures, and the process of casting a ballot.
To familiarise the participants with actual exercise on poll day, a mock voting exercise is conducted at the end of each session. ECP representatives facilitate this role-playing activity, providing participants with practical experience. The sessions actively encourage participants to engage in the electoral processes, and detailed demonstrations on voter registration and the voting process are provided.
One of the suggestions that emerged from these group activities with youth was that ECP should conduct such awareness sessions on a larger scale, even at the grassroots level. These mass awareness programs have the potential to empower citizens with the knowledge and understanding necessary for active participation in the electoral process.
We also need to reflect on ways to increase our voter’s turnout to at least 70% and take ownership of who is in power. The 2018 election statistics reveal a turnout of 51.7%, allowing the remaining 49% to have a significant say in those who hold power. While one vote may seem unimportant, every single vote holds weight and can shape the outcome. It is important to recognise that our individual votes matter and contribute to the democratic process.