Volume 22 Issue 6, June 2018
 
 

 

There is a stir all round as the term of the present government draws to an end and the country gears up for the next general elections. Paeans are being sung and panegyrics recited about the importance of the vote while pundits are at pains to explain the quintessential value of the vote in elections and why it is a quasi-religious duty of a citizen to vote to elect a government.

In simple terms, a vote is an expression of a voter’s opinion, for or against, a person or an issue, which ought to be respected. That is why Nawaz Sharif’s slogan, these days, is: “Respect the vote.”

To appreciate the importance of voting in electing people to govern requires a high level of political awareness that does not come only with education but tradition as well. It is not the illiterate man-in-the-street that sells his vote, because those who bought or sold votes in the recent senate elections were, all educated people. The importance of the vote is also lost when people see dictators trampling over their wishes and overthrowing the people they had voted for. This generates voter apathy. No wonder, Pakistan is among the countries with the lowest voter turnout.

Jhurlu: In Pakistan, the vote has never been given its due respect. In the past, in one general election some polling officers literally swept ballots with a broom and shoved them into ballot boxes. The operation was given the moniker of jhurlu.

There are some significant problems too with regard to voting in Pakistan. First, most of the people don’t know the personality of the candidate to make a correct choice. They blindly cast their vote largely due to the influence of feudalism.

Second, the country’s system of governance needs a broad agreement to constitutionally bring the invisible forces, - that frequently vandalize the voters’ choice and derail democracy - in the loop and make them visible. In this way, the non-mandated but de facto movers and shakers can have their official say in state affairs.

Allegations of horse-trading and purchase of votes have also tarnished the image of Pakistan’s parliament. Instead of accusing others of wrongdoing, it is time for political leaders themselves to strengthen democracy within and outside their parties. Those purchasing their way to parliament and those who are fugitives from the law cannot be expected to uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and democratic values.

All who use their right to vote in the elections also expect from their elected representative to give honour and respect to their vote by leading from the front through good governance, a high moral ground and a clean record. They certainly do not want to see their vote disrespected by non-representative people or powers, ouster of their leaders through unconstitutional means, but at the same time they also want that if their representatives are found guilty in corruption or criminal cases, they should be punished or made accountable as they consider it a breach of trust and disrespect to their vote.

In a country where the Constitution could not protect itself from being abrogated time and again for almost 70 years; it would be naive to talk about ‘sanctity of the vote’. Had respect been given to the vote and voters’ choice, Pakistan’s political history would have been different.

It is true that, when it comes to political engineering, manipulation, defections and purchase and sale of votes, the ‘sanctity of vote’ can be under threat. In order to maintain the vote’s sanctity, it is important that all political parties be given a, ‘level playing field,’ and political engineering be checked by the institutions responsible for holding free and fair elections.

The sanctity of the vote is also linked with good governance and institution-building. If elected governments fail, this also tantamounts to breach of the voter’s trust. No one supports extra-constitutional rule and it is the responsibility of the people’s representatives to truly represent their people. Leaders have to be on a high moral ground with a clean record and know the art of governance if the ‘sanctity of the vote’ is to be maintained.

Pakistan’s political history provides ample instances of political engineering and efforts to get ‘positive results.’ The concept of the King’s Party or all the ‘king’s men’, must stop as history has showed that it never produces the required results.

In the past, the sanctity of the vote was often upset through back-to-back martial laws like in 1958, 1968, 1977 and 1999 but it is also true that whenever given the chance, the elected representatives themselves showed disrespect to the voters and their vote by not setting good examples of governance and institution-building.

On the contrary, they faced serious charges of corruption and crime, some false, others true. The crisis in 1970-71 was a result of not giving respect to the mandate and denying the majority right to rule. Politicians are as responsible for the tragedy of East Pakistan as the then military establishment.

The sanctity of the vote was again violated in 1977. Though the PPP could have won the elections and could have even acquired a simple majority, the sanctity of the vote was violated through selective rigging and getting the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers elected unopposed.

The parliamentarians’ poor presence in the assembly sessions including that of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan also indicates disrespect towards the vote. The voters did not elect them to be absent from their lawmaking functions.
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In the case of Nawaz Sharif’s last ouster, the sanctity of the vote was maintained as, unlike in the past, the PML-N government as well as the Parliament remained very much intact.

Had the PML-N government in its tenure brought drastic electoral reforms, made the Election Commission of Pakistan powerful and independent and set some good examples of governance and respect for other institutions, it could have strengthened the voters and earned respect for the vote.

The sanctity of the vote can be maintained if rulers make themselves accountable and not think of themselves as being above the law. ‘Sanctity’ is also violated when non-representative powers try to change the government or manipulate elections through political engineering.

In Pakistan’s political history, the vote has never been given its due value. Whenever people use the power of the vote, anti-democratic forces tend to neutralize it either by tarnishing the sanctity of the ballot box or by creating pseudo-political alliances against the elected representatives.

However, there can be no improvement until the political leaders and especially the power-hungry forces adopt a civilized attitude and acknowledge the value of the vote as a part of democracy. India offers a shining example of sanctity of the ballot that Pakistan could usefully follow.

 
 

 
 
     
The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia.    
 
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