This article was published in Dawn on November 07, 2022 and is available at the following link
VOTER turnout is as vital a sign of political health of a democracy as is blood pressure in a human body. Pakistan has consistently experienced three major fault lines in voter turnout at least over the past nine general elections since 1985.
The key problem is a perennially low voter turnout, almost akin to low blood pressure in a human body indicating weakness. A string of recent by-elections has once again reminded us of these fault lines especially in constituencies in Karachi — Pakistan’s largest city — where the average voter turnout hovered around 15 per cent. The average voter turnout for the past nine general elections is just a little over 45pc which means that more than half the voters do not even participate in electing their new governments at the federal and provincial level.
Although Pakistan started off on the right note as the first general election held on the basis of universal adult franchise in 1970 registered a modestly healthy voter turnout of slightly over 63pc, voter turnout in subsequent general elections could not match that. Since 1985, voter turnout has seen several ups and downs with the lowest turnout of 35.4pc experienced in the 1997 general election. Fortunately, we saw some improvement in voter turnout in 2013 when it reached 53.62pc but the momentum could not be sustained in the 2018 election as the turnout dipped slightly to 51.5pc.
Pakistan does not compare well on the state of voter turnout with other countries of the world. The average global voter turnout computed by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance since 1940s is around 76pc, which is way above the 45pc average turnout in Pakistani elections. Among 169 countries whose data has been compiled, Pakistan, sadly, stands at 165 — close to the bottom.
Pakistan does not compare well on the state of voter turnout with other countries of the world.
Besides the fault line of overall voter turnout, women voters’ turnout is also a problem. Although the gender gap in registered votes is the basis for the low participation of women in the electoral process in Pakistan, the gap, fortunately, has started shrinking lately. Another positive development is that women’s votes are now being separately counted since the 2018 general election and that will help in analysing the problem and pointing out the constituencies where this problem is more pronounced.
The male voter turnout was 56.01pc in the 2018 general election compared to the 46.89pc female voter turnout, indicating a gap of around nine percentage points which translates into 11.18 million fewer women votes polled compared to men’s. In the 98 by-elections held since the 2018 general election, this pattern of lower female voter turnout has persisted where the share of polled women votes has been around 40pc of the total polled votes, while male polled votes accounted for about 60pc, translating to around 2m fewer women votes polled. While such a wide disparity still exists in the polled male and female votes in Pakistan, the gender gap has not only vanished, the female voter turnout of 67.18pc has actually exceeded the male turnout of 67.01pc in the last Lok Sabha election held in 2019 in neighbouring India.
In Pakistan, although Elections Act, 2017, has introduced a safeguard through Section 9 that if the turnout of women voters is less than 10pc of the total votes polled in a constituency, the ECP may presume that women voters have been restrained from casting their votes and may declare polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency void, this particular provision has adopted a flawed definition of female turnout. The law has actually taken the share of women votes polled in the total polled votes as the turnout which is usually more than the actual women voter turnout. There is a need to amend this particular provision of the law by defining the women voter turnout as the women votes polled as a percentage of the total women votes registered.
Another fault line lies in the youth voter turnout in Pakistan. This category consists of persons from 18 to 29 years of age for the purpose of computing their turnout in elections. There is no formal arrangement to compute the youth voter turnout in an election but exit polls provide a scientific basis for such computation. Gallup Pakistan exit polls during the past eight general elections have computed the average youth voter turnout as 31pc. Compared to this, an average youth voter turnout in India is 60pc — twice the Pakistani average, according to the Indian think tank Lokniti, which regularly conducts electoral studies including exit polls.
An extremely low youth voter turnout indicates the youth’s weak trust in the electoral and democratic processes of the country. This may carry some serious ramifications as youth disillusioned by the democratic process may become an easy target of extremist ideologies which do not believe in democracy. We have recently seen an uptick in terrorist activities along our western border and this indicates the vulnerability of youth to such radical movements. This issue assumes even greater importance when we see that youth of 18 to 29 years form the largest age group among the six age groups categorised by the ECP.
Political parties, especially the larger ones, do not seem to be focusing much on the youth and their huge electoral potential. One manifestation of that is the low percentage of young candidates in the National and provincial assembly elections. In the 2018 general election, for example, the PTI and PPP awarded only 7pc of their National and provincial assemblies’ tickets to young candidates from 25 to 35 years of age. The PML-N awarded only 4.5pc of its tickets to young candidates. In contrast, the TLP awarded 15pc of its tickets to young candidates.
With the next election not more than 11 months away, it is about time that political parties, parliament, the ECP and civil society seriously worked on these fault lines.