On free and fair elections

April 18, 2021

In a participatory democracy, the vote is the representation of one’s free will and agency, which needs a free and just society

The mantra of free and fair elections has been very common in the Pakistani context. All Pakistani elections - from general elections to the election of the president - have been accused of being unfair, rigged or engineered. It is an irony that it is not just the losing parties that raise questions on the transparency of the election process and results. Even the winning party is not satisfied with the outcome. In this context, and keeping in view the history of Pakistani elections, the on-going Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) appears to be a normal exercise of the political parties in opposition. The eleven parties have alleged that the incumbent government is illegitimate for having been ‘selected’ as the July 2018 elections were not free, fair and transparent. In Pakistan, the terms free, fair, and transparent are used when there is some external institutional meddling in the process of the elections. The underlying socio-political, economic and structural injustices affecting the choices of the people are hardly taken into consideration. In a participatory democracy, the vote is the representation of one’s free will and agency. This requires a free and just society.

The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees safeguards against all types of exploitation and promises equal opportunities in all spheres of life for all and sundry. Nevertheless, while having a legal and constitutional framework in place, we have been unable to ensure reasonable standards of living for all, leave alone a level playing field in the elections. Elections can never be free and fair unless we can do away with dynastic politics, kinship vote system, excessive use of money in the elections, illiteracy, patriarchy, use of religious and ethnic cards in the elections and molding of public opinion via media campaigns and political rhetoric. These are structural inequalities that are detrimental to the spirit of a democratic society based on socio-political, economic and gender equality.

Pakistan does not only need a free and independent election commission but also a free society. A society where individuals are autonomous in exercising their free will based on their experiences and expectations. Cultural and religious forces should not come into play when women vote against the choices of their male relatives. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan the number of registered women voters stands at 51,667,599. However, the votes are often polled according to the decisions taken by male relatives. Casting a vote amid all forces of illiteracy, patriarchy, cultural taboos and religious bigotry does not allow for free and fair elections. In addition to this a mind that is fettered by the chains of unemployment, financial dependency and cultural and gender biases can never make free choices for itself and the society at large.

Family affiliations and the kinship-based voting system make it a cultural and social duty for every member to vote for the party one’s family has social connection or association with. In many areas of the country, voting against the family affiliations amounts to political blasphemy. The entrenched kinship system is not only detrimental to free adult franchise but also negatively impacts the governance of the country. Professor Stephen M Lyon, in his book Political Kinship in Pakistan: Descent, Marriage, and Government Stability, says, “Kinship is a critical mechanism for understanding both Pakistan’s continued inability to develop strong and stable governments, and its incredible durability in the face of pressures that have led to the collapse and failure of other states around the world.” Besides this, the remnants of feudalism still persist, where landlords tell their tenants to vote for their favoured candidates. So, here the definition of a level playing field must include these unseen chains on one’s body and mind.

The politics of pork and barrel and the use of money in electioneering are great rigging forces in Pakistani elections. In every election, serious candidates across political parties exceed the spending limit fixed by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Lots of money is spent on campaigning and transporting supporters to the polling stations. The poor are just a vehicle to vote for the rich in the general elections. The concept of ‘electable’ is a direct outcome of the role of money and the moneyed class in the elections.

Supra-constitutional meddling or choreographing the elections is a ubiquitous bar on the transparency of elections. However, in the presence of the aforementioned structural inequalities no elections can be free and fair. The present system of reserved seats and quotas for women in political parties is inadequate to enhance the free political will and agency of women. What is required is a comprehensive reforms package, ranging from dismantling of feudalism and patriarchy to behavioural change, to establish the true value and sanctity of vote. Until social, economic and gender equality is ensured in the country, free and fair elections will remain a far cry.

The author is a Policy Outreach and Advocacy Officer at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)   Islamabad.

On free and fair elections