OMMENT: Revolution through judicious polling —Asim Rehman & Taimur Shaique Hussain - Saturday, March 05, 2011

Source :\03\05\story_5-3-2011_pg3_5

If we act in our own individual/household capacities by simply setting out to vote come election day, we could theoretically (and in practice!) envisage a completely new canvas free of the tried and tested failures that have been repeatedly taking turns in ruling us for the past two decades

Ironically, and unfortunately, people in Pakistan do not seem to have achieved the critical transformation from boardroom politics to ballot box politics. Although about 60 percent of our ‘registered’ voters do not even step out of their homes to visit the polling booth on election day, we remain foremost in criticising the policies of whichever party assumes the reins of government.

During the previous election, the candidate that secured the National Assembly seat from my area NA 250 (Karachi) is reported to have bagged only about 16 percent of the registered voters’ votes for herself. Out of about 324,681 registered voters, the turnout was 104,176, with 52,045 voting for her. The majority of registered voters apparently chose not to cast their ballot. Whilst the results may very well have been different if more registered voters had turned out, we would also not have become subject to someone who does not enjoy an ‘outright’ majority, but a majority only amongst the minority that actually went out to the balloting booth. Very similar was the situation of the country as a whole and only about 43.65 percent of all registered voters cast their ballot. Add to this the millions that were eligible to vote but had never registered themselves, and the percent representation slips further downward.

One way to look at this paradox is that when people do not vote, they are signalling either ‘not interested’ (in which case they ought not complain later about shoddy governance), or ‘none of the above’ (in which case the absentee vote may well have had enough strength to bring in completely new faces during the election). It may indeed be crucial for our voters to begin realising that with such low turnouts, if more people were to participate, those candidates winning with marginal votes would perhaps be ‘annihilated’. Our electorate appears akin to the miser who prayed to God day after long day to make him win the grand lottery but refused to purchase a single lottery ticket.

Another malaise affecting the Pakistan psyche is that of ‘herd instinct’. We follow the herd, fail to think independently, forget the track record of incumbents, and generally make juvenile political decisions such as, “I will not vote for him/her because he/she will not win.” How much more insane can it get than this? It is tried and tested that all tried and tested politicians and parties have failed to bring overall relief to the populace over the years. Yet, we continue voting them in. And then crib incessantly for years to boot them out. It may be crystal clear then that only a new face at the helm of affairs — someone not yet tested — can bring about an affirmative change. The only way to effect this is for each one of us to participate in the voting exercise, and to mobilise the non-voting population that have nevertheless registered themselves to vote. It is a well known, though less raised, subject that Pakistan is being ruled by politicians who won by narrow margins in general, and that too from a small voting minority. Let us urge ourselves to cure ‘voter absentia’, and spare those critical 15 minutes to vote on the election day.

It appears to me that it is the urban vote that normally slackens. While the feudal lords may push their way in their geographical areas through brute force, bribery, buying of voters and so forth, and thus record a comparatively higher turnout, it is the urban intelligentsia that crib that the feudals dominate our political system. The urban voter simply has to counter this unfortunate phenomenon by being more independent in his/her choice of vote, by sparing those life-changing 15 minutes, by spreading the message of voter registration, and by rising as an educated, democratic-minded, intelligent and decisive middle class. Since urban turnouts even of registered voters may be dismally low, we often end up crying out about rigging, although we are the largest contributing factor ourselves — if we do not vote, our ballot is ‘open’ and ‘exposed’ for a fake vote. Little wonder, then, that populous nations like India (election turnout about 60 percent) and Bangladesh (election turnout about 70 percent) exhibit more continuity in government, greater likelihood of elected parties completing their terms, and lesser incidence of crying out ‘foul’ and demands for ‘throwing out the incumbents’.

It is logical next to also address the unregistered voters — people who have come of age (every year about 6,000,000 Pakistanis turn 18, so we can judge the size of this pocket when elections are held say every four years or so); expatriates returning; simple lazy folks; marginalised sections such as housewives perhaps or domestic help. It may be time for them to register themselves, which is not as uphill a task as it seems.

In conclusion, if we act in our own individual/household capacities by simply setting out to vote come election day, we could theoretically (and in practice!) envisage a completely new canvas free of the tried and tested failures that have been repeatedly taking turns in ruling us for the past two decades. The people who are ruling our country are obviously not in favour with most of us for, as stated, about 60 percent of registered Pakistanis refrained from even casting their vote in the previous election.

Let us not forget that 1) certain parties boycotted the previous polls and their vote pool most likely diverted elsewhere (had they fielded candidates, and had voters turned out in larger numbers, who knows they may well have given a run for their money to candidates from several diverse constituencies); and 2) a large proportion of the ruling party’s vote may well have been ‘sympathy ballot’ due to the chairperson’s tragic assassination.

To echo Khalil Gibran’s historic words in his work entitled, The New Frontier circa 1925, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” it does seem now that — provided we all exercise our ‘right’ and our ‘duty’ to vote no later than the next elections — Pakistan may very well be on the verge of a political take off!

The writers are both MBAs from LUMS. While Asim is a commercial pilot, Taimur is an independent teacher-cum-consultant

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