Pakistan’s Elections Give Grounds for Hope
May 15, 2013
These were the elections which many did not expect to see in Pakistan. Despite persistent and widespread rumors right up until the actual day of elections that they would be cancelled or postponed, Pakistan’s General Elections took place as scheduled on May 11. Around 50 million citizens took part in this historical event: the first time (with the new federal government expected to assume office at the beginning of June) that a successful transition from one democratically elected government to another has taken place. The turnout was the highest since 1970, as millions defied terrorist threats of polling day violence, already the bloodiest election campaign in the country’s history, and bravely waited in line to vote. Violence did disrupt elections in a few parts of the country, notably in Karachi, and contests in some polling stations will be re-run. But in the great majority of constituencies, polling took place peacefully.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), almost 60 percent of the 86 million registered voters cast their votes in the 2013 General Elections, and while detailed gender disaggregated data are not yet available, female participation in the electoral process, both as candidates and voters, is reportedly higher than in the past. Overall, the elections attracted double the number of candidates compared to 2008, and although pre-poll violence targeted some parties more than others, hampering their campaigning and throwing the “level playing field” into doubt, the issues at stake in today’s Pakistan clearly galvanized an unexpectedly large number of citizens to cast their votes. Civil society organizations supplemented official efforts to register voters, particularly women, and spearheaded voter education.
But the greater engagement of the electorate in the polls, the large participation of younger and other first-time voters, the official recognition, among the most marginalized of groups, of transgender voters and the many debates and discussions among friends, workmates and even family members, attest to the increasing interest among the citizens of Pakistan in the political process and to more serious efforts by the political parties to reach out to them. Of course, there are still improvements that can be made to ensure that future elections are run more smoothly and engage an even greater range and diversity of Pakistan’s population. For example, more needs to be done to enable and encourage women to vote – there are still polling stations where no female votes were recorded, reports that women were actively barred in a few areas, and the number of successful female candidates remains very small.
Allegations of poll rigging have been made, and at the time of writing, a large number of cases are before the ECP. It may take time to resolve these, but the evidence of the 41,000 observers deployed throughout the country by member organizations of the Free & Fair Elections Network (FAFEN), currently being sifted and collated, will be crucial in determining just how free and fair the elections have been. But as voters proudly display the indelible ink-mark on their thumbs which prove that they have voted, and many have their individual stories to tell about how they came to vote as they did, one voice lingers vividly in the mind: “Today I am a proud Pakistani –in spite of all the difficulties, these elections did take place, and that gives ground for hope.”
Gareth Aicken is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Pakistan and Ameena Ilahi is the deputy country representative there. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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