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Opinion

June 24, 2018

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What makes us vote?

In Pakistan, as in most other democracies, legally voting is a right not a duty. Nor do public policies discriminate between those who exercise their right to franchise and those who stay away from the polls.

Then why do people turn out in fairly large numbers and queue up for hours at polling stations in scorching weather, awaiting the opportunity to stamp the ballot paper?

By the same token, why do people vote for one party or candidate and not another? Do the voters act rationally when they exercise their right to franchise? In Pakistan, the average voter turnout between the 1970 and 2013 elections has been 47 percent compared with 60 percent in India. So we may begin by looking at why at least half of the eligible voters don’t turn up on polling day.

The part of the electorate which abstains from voting may do so for two principal reasons. One, they regard voting as a futile exercise, either because of the belief that one person’s vote can make no difference to the electoral outcome or because they are convinced that elections will bring the same tried and tested breed of politicians to power.

For the latter category of citizens, all political parties are birds of a feather. So it doesn’t really matter which party forms government. In countries where elections have proved an ineffective mechanism to shore up governance or where politicians are widely deemed to be good for nothing, such cynicism abounds. As a rule, the larger is the number of eligible voters who are indifferent to parties and candidates, the lower is the voter turnout.

In Pakistan, the highest average voter turnout of 64 percent was recorded during the inaugural 1970 elections, followed by 62 percent in the 1977 polls. The massive turnouts reflected the high importance the people attached to the electoral-cum-democratic process. During the 1990s, when the PPP and PML-N took turns in the exercise of power as governments were shown the door prematurely, the average voter turnout dipped to 40 percent. The low turnout was an index of the people’s disillusionment with the political process.

The second variety of abstainers comprises those whose interest in the electoral process is confined to heated coffee table discussions, or, as at present, to the exchange of fire and fury in social media. This category doesn’t necessarily look upon the electoral exercise as futile. On the contrary, they may even see the electoral outcome as holding considerable stakes for them. But they are not willing to go through the rigmarole of casting their vote. The urban middle class typically falls into this category.

Like the abstainers, the voters can also be categorised into two types: those who make it a point to vote and those who vote as a matter of course. The former category is convinced that their choice to vote or not can make a difference either individually or collectively. The latter category may be made to vote out of sheer ‘baradri’ (communal) or pecuniary considerations, regardless of whether they add any value to the electoral outcome. In a large number of cases, the voters may not be aware of the credentials of the candidate or party whose symbol they put the stamp on.

The prime significance of political parties is that they structure the voter’s choice through ideologies, narratives and programmes. This economises on the people’s preference for one candidate over the rest. Ideological voting is as a rule en masse, in which the winner takes all. This happened during the 1970 elections when Z A Bhutto’s PPP won a landslide in West Pakistan on the strength of its populist-cum-socialist ideology. The PPP repeated its performance in the 1977 polls. Ideological voting almost eliminates the role of the electable. A candidate just needs to be nominated by a party that holds sway over the electorate, and his/her victory is on the cards. Their personal credentials hold little importance in the eyes of the electorate.

In recent years, the role of ideology in determining the electoral outcome has been on the wane, which accounts for the split electorate verdicts since 1988 onward. The one exception was the 1997 elections in which the PML-N won more than two-third of the National Assembly seats. But that had more to do with the despondent PPP supporters, who by and large opted not to cast their vote, than with the PML-N’s mass popularity.

The vacuum created by the eclipse of ideology has been occupied by identity politics, narratives and programmes. Like ideology, identity politics has a strong emotional content, exhibits an en masse voting pattern and works independently of a party’s performance while in the saddle. Since identity politics has a cultural basis – creed, language or ethnicity – it is narrower in scope than ideology.

Identity politics is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970 elections, the East Pakistanis voted almost exclusively for the Awami League on the basis of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Six Points, which were an articulation of identity politics. It is because of identity politics that the PPP has swept every election in rural Sindh since 1988. Likewise, come rain or shine, the MQM has won a landslide in urban Sindh in successive elections. It is only in Sindh that identity politics is a force to reckon with. In other provinces, the electorate is motivated by other factors, which accounts for the split mandate and fluctuating fortunes of the major parties.

Political parties are like a brand name. In the absence of a powerful ideology, brand loyalty rests on the narratives they espouse and the programmes they put forward. A political narrative seeks to make people look at vital issues from a singular perspective. The PTI set down all the problems of Pakistan to the alleged absence of a neat and clean leadership. The PML-N is portraying the upcoming polls as a decisive battle between the popular mandate and extra-political forces. Surprisingly, the PPP, which of late has fallen between two stools, has no narrative to present at the national level. A narrative may be no more than an old wives’ tale but it can strike a responsive chord with the voters if a powerful sales pitch is made.

Programmes are more pragmatic than other tools of winning popular support. It is customary for the mainstream political parties to make an appeal to all sections of society. At the same time, as a brand name, a political party enjoys an edge over its rivals with respect to a particular slice of the electorate. However, at present there is little to choose from among the major political parties as far as their programmes are concerned.

Voters not only value policy, they also put a premium on performance. People by and large may not disagree about the right policy but they may differ over the parties’ relative capability to bring about the desired outcome. Past performances also matter in firming up popular opinion, which also accounts for the incumbency factor, whereby the outgoing government – with the exception of the 1977 elections – is defeated in the ensuing elections.

Narratives and programmes can never hold sway over the electorate’s mind the way an ideology does. This leaves a lot of space for the politics of electables. Voting for an electable is always a convenient choice for the voters, especially for those who sit on the fence. This is why all political parties vie with each other to attract as many electables to their folds as possible. But the electables know which way the wind is blowing and so they seldom put their money on the wrong horse.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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