LAHORE: Although the Pakistani authorities are putting their best foot forward to increase voter turnout in the forthcoming July 25 general elections and encourage maximum participation in the political process, the country is yet to surpass the 63 per cent turnout recorded during the first-ever direct national ballot exercise held on December 7, 1970.
The 1970 elections had seen Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won a landslide victory by winning an absolute majority of 160 seats in the National Assembly, while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party could bag only 81 seats.
Overall, the Awami League also won 298 out of 310 seats in the State Assembly of East Pakistan. During the 1970 polls, the Pakistan People’s Party had won in Punjab and Sindh, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) had emerged victorious in Balochistan and the Marxist National Awami Party (NAP), now called the Awami National Party (ANP), had won the laurels in the NWFP.
Sadly enough, the National Assembly session was not held as the then president Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party did not want a party from East Pakistan to lead a government.
This state of affairs had caused great unrest in East Pakistan, which soon escalated into a bloody civil war, consequently resulting in the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh.
History reveals that the Assembly session was eventually held when President Yahya Khan had to relinquish charge a few days later and Bhutto took over. Bhutto became the Prime Minister in 1973, after the post was recreated by the new Constitution.
It is imperative to note that the voter turnout during the May 2013 Pakistani elections was a relatively healthy 54.9 per cent, which thus meant that it was 10.5 per cent more than what the case was in February 2008 polls.
While a high turnout is an implicit endorsement of the system and a sign of growing confidence of electors in a democracy, a low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference.
To achieve a higher turnout in polling exercises and to help their respective political systems attain maximum endorsement from general public, numerous nations have thus made voting compulsory at elections.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), which is an inter-governmental organization with regional offices in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific and Africa, most democratic governments consider participating in national elections a right of citizenship. Some consider that participation at elections is also a citizen's civic responsibility.
In some countries, where voting is considered a duty, voting at elections has been made compulsory and has been regulated in the national constitutions and electoral laws. Some countries go as far as to impose sanctions on non-voters.
Headquartered is in Stockholm and founded in 1995, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has revealed that compulsory voting is not a new concept. Some of the first countries that introduced mandatory voting laws were Belgium in 1892, Argentina in 1914 and Australia in 1924. There are also examples of countries such as Venezuela and the Netherlands which at one time in their history practiced compulsory voting but have since abolished it.
Following are the countries where mandatory voting was once practiced or where laws still provide for compulsory voting:
Argentina (since 1912), Australia (since 1924), Cyprus (since 1960), Italy (practiced from 1945 to 1993), Liechtenstein, Luxembourg (voluntary for those over 70), Belgium (since 1892 for men and since 1949 for women), Ecuador (since 1936), Spain (practiced from 1907 to 1923), Singapore (The non-voter in Singapore is removed from the voter register until he/she reapplies and provides a reason. Fee applies only if the voter does not have valid reason for not voting. The non-voter is also disqualified from being a candidate at any subsequent presidential or parliamentary elections), Switzerland (still practiced in only one canton. Abolished in other cantons in 1974), Turkey, Uruguay (voting mandatory since 1934 but law in this context was not in practice until 1970),Venezuela (Practiced until 1993), Egypt (since 1956), Fiji (Practiced from 1992 to 2006, Fiji had abandoned compulsory voting in 2014), Greece (since 1926), Lebanon (21 years of voting age; compulsory for all males; authorized for women at age 21 with elementary education; excludes military personnel), Paraguay (compulsory up to age 75), Peru (since 1933), Bolivia (since 1952), Brazil, Bulgaria (since 2016) and Chile (practiced from 1925 to 2012).
Arguments in favour of compulsory voting:
Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate. They argue further that voting, voluntarily or otherwise, has an educational effect upon the citizens
Political parties can derive financial benefits from compulsory voting, since they do not have to spend resources convincing the electorate that it should in general turn out to vote. Lastly, if democracy is government by the people, presumably this includes all people then it is every citizen's responsibility to elect their representatives.
Arguments against compulsory voting:
The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy. Voting is not an intrinsic obligation and the enforcement of the law would be an infringement of the citizens' freedom associated with democratic elections. It may discourage the political education of the electorate because people forced to participate will react against the perceived source of oppression. Is a government really more legitimate if the high voter turnout is against the will of the voters? Many countries with limited financial capacity may not be able to justify the expenditures of maintaining and enforcing compulsory voting laws. It has been proved that forcing the population to vote results in an increased number of invalid and blank votes compared to countries that have no compulsory voting laws.
Another consequence of mandatory voting is the possible high number of "random votes." Voters who are voting against their free will, may check off a candidate at random, particularly the top candidate on the ballot. The voter does not care whom they vote for as long as the government is satisfied that they fulfilled their civic duty. What effect does this immeasurable category of random votes have on the legitimacy of the democratically elected government?
Countries where fines are imposed for not voting:
The non-voter faces a fine sanction. The amount varies between the countries, for example three Swiss Francs in Switzerland, between 300 and 3,000 ATS in Austria, 200 Cyprus Pounds in Cyprus, 10-20 Argentinean Pesos in Argentina, 20 Soles in Peru etc.
Non-voter may face imprisonment as a sanction in countries like Australia, where a fine sanction is otherwise common. In cases where the non-voter does not pay the fines after being reminded or after refusing several times, the courts may impose a prison sentence. This is usually classified as imprisonment for failure to pay the fine, not imprisonment for failure to vote. However, an acceptable excuse for absence on Election Day will avoid sanctions.
Then, there are countries like Belgium, where a non-voter, after not voting in at least four elections within 15 years will be disenfranchised. In Belgium it might be difficult getting a job within the public sector if you are non-voter.
In Peru, the voter has to carry a stamped voting card for a number of months after the election as a proof of having voted. This stamp is required in order to obtain some services and goods from some public offices.
In Singapore, the voter is removed from the voter register until he/she reapplies to be included and submits a legitimate reason for not having voted.
In Bolivia, the voter is given a card when he/she has voted so that he/she can proof the participation. The voter would not be able to receive his/her salary from the bank if he/she cannot show the proof of voting during three months after the election.
There are no formal sanctions in Mexico or Italy but possible arbitrary or social sanctions. This is called the "innocuous sanction" in Italy, where it might for example be difficult to get a day care place for your child or similar but this is not formalized in any way at all.
A 2017 study in Electoral Studies found that Swiss cantons that reduced the costs of postal voting for voters by prepaying the postage on return envelopes (which otherwise cost 85 Swiss Franc cents) were "associated with a statistically significant 1.8 percentage point increase in voter turnout.
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