A disenfranchised people

December 10, 2023

How voting, a fundamental right, is being undermined

A disenfranchised people

Fair, transparent and inclusive voting is the only peaceful way through which people choose and change their governments. The right to vote is the cornerstone of any democratic society and a fundamental human right.

In Pakistan, however, the voting right of a citizen is undermined by making it a citizens’ responsibility of sorts.

The identity card’s purpose is not merely to identify voters at polling stations. It is also a basic requirement to become an eligible voter. Without a national identity card, a citizen thus is disenfranchised.

The National Database and Registration Authority, the body responsible for issuing identity cards, is under no legal obligation to reach out to everyone. A citizen has to go to its offices and complete some paperwork before a card is issued and the right to franchise conferred.

The fundamental right of vote, particularly of the rural women and the marginalised – who are unable to fulfill this responsibility easily, is thus undermined. As a result, they are disenfranchised.

Over 11 million more women than men in the country were disenfranchised in the 2018 elections because they had no national identity cards. This was more than the total registered women voters in the Sindh. This was also 65 percent of the total votes of about 17 million secured by the party that won the 2018 election.

This does not mean that there are no missing male voters and no man is disenfranchised. The 2017 census showed that nearly 5.8 million male voters had no identity cards and thus, were disallowed to vote.

It must be acknowledged that some progress has been made in addressing the gender gap in the right to vote. The electoral rolls placed on the Election Commission of Pakistan website last year showed that over one million more women voters had been added compared to the 2018 rolls. But this is too slow a pace of improvement. At this pace, it will take another twelve years to correct the imbalance.

Women voters’ turnout has also been lower than men’s. In the 2018 elections, women’s turnout was 9 percent lower than men’s. The gender gap is further compounded, and women suffer from double disenfranchisement. No wonder then that according to the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap report, Pakistan ranked 145 out of 146, ahead of only Afghanistan, in 2022.

If the millions of women had voted in the last polls, the results may have been different altogether. The potential political implications of women disenfranchisement cannot be ignored.

A disenfranchised people

More than 11 million more women than men in the country were disenfranchised in the 2018 elections because they had no national identity cards.

There is another aspect of women political disempowerment also relating to their representation in the assemblies.

The Election Act of 2017 requires that political parties put up women candidates on at least 5 percent of general seats they are contesting in a general election. This is too arbitrary. There are 266 general seats in the National Assembly and 60 reserved seats for women. The arbitrariness of the 5 percent quota for women on general seats is obvious.

The right to vote is also undermined for non-Muslim minorities. It arises from the mode of their election to their reserved seats.

Nominated to the reserved seats by party heads instead of minority community members, the minority candidates echo the voice of the party leaders rather than of their constituents in the parliament. It is inevitable that the ordinary minority citizens feel disenfranchised. They complain that their voices are not echoed in the assemblies. Furthermore, minorities’ women feel handicapped as the law does not bind political parties to give them representation in the seats reserved for women. Some political parties, like the Pakistan Peoples Party, may have given them representation on their own but that is a different matter.

A large number of persons with disabilities also suffer from disenfranchisement. There is no authentic data about the type of disabilities, geographical location and other related variants. According to the 1998 census, their population was 3.2 million but in the 2017 census it came down to only 0.9 million. There is no talk about the missing 2.3 million PWDs, let alone of their right to vote.

In a society in which the word ‘transgender’ has almost become a term of abuse, it is hard to expect that they be given an equal right to vote and thus, be empowered politically. They number in hundreds of thousand. But the 2017 census showed above-18 transgender persons’ number as 20,411. 29 percent of them had no national identity cards and were thus, disenfranchised. They do not figure in a separate column in the voters’ list. In the language of the Election Act 2017, they are not even recognised let alone included in the electoral process.

When politics, politicians, the parliament and the democratic civilian structures are systematically delegitimised, almost everyone is disenfranchised. Political parties must spare a thought to this in the supposed election season.

The writer is a former senator

A disenfranchised people