To vote or not to vote: 6 questions that need to be answered before Election Day

Published: July 19, 2018
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A Pakistani election presiding officer marks a voter's thumb with indelible ink during the re-poll of voters in the constituency known as NA-250 in Karachi on May 19, 2013. PHOTO: AFP

As General Elections are approaching, people are increasingly interested in discussing various aspects of elections. In a country that has seen martial laws most of its existence, it is indeed a good omen that slowly elections are becoming a predictable event of democratic development (touch wood) in Pakistan. The world has started excelling in the use of social media for meaningful purposes including electioneering; it’s not a bad start for Pakistan as well.

There is, however, a huge class of “concerned citizens” (read: chattering class) who have started raising some questions on elections, ranging from why is there an election at all to why not vote for “none of the above”. While there are many valid questions asked, these type of questions are mostly asked by those who are either not politically aware or have very limited knowledge and insight of democratic development.

Below I have attempted to answer few of the common questions that these “concerned citizens” ask about elections on social media and generate a debate, which in most cases is not very helpful for democratic development in Pakistan.

1. What will these elections change? Why do we even bother about them?

It’s no secret that Pakistan is still in its crucial transition to democracy and is not a fully functioning, effective democracy. When the world was celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta in 2015, we were only in our eighth year of democracy. For democracy to survive, strengthen and deliver for the people of Pakistan, we have to give it due time, energy and consideration.

Periodic elections are in no way a guarantee that democracy will deliver but they are instruments to provide essential continuity to democratic process. Holding of elections on time, without interruption, can bring much awaited accountability to elected representatives. If we don’t care about elections, we will lose the legitimate right to question non-delivery of democracy.

Hence, elections are an essential means to an important “end”. In Pakistan, it’s even more important as this is only the third General Elections since 2008, and only the second opportunity to achieve peaceful and democratic handover by one elected government to the next one. This is a given for any democracy which is more advanced than us but for us it is a big deal and let’s make it worthwhile by participating in them.

2. Should we care about parties’ manifestos?

Party manifestos are considered to be an important document for voters, while making their choices, as it is a promise parties make to their voters. This document becomes a major tool of multi-layered accountability of political parties, regardless of whether they end up on treasury or opposition benches. Failure to live up to their manifesto commitments ensures their loss in next elections and vice versa.

In Pakistan, however, manifestos are not taken seriously by parties as well as citizens due to the common perception that this document dies the day elections are over. But as the elections have become more competitive over the years, parties have started taking manifestos more seriously and so have citizens, especially civil society organisations.

Scorecards against manifestos issued by various civil society organisations are a good example of making parties accountable against their manifestos. All major political parties have announced their manifestos. It is for us to take this seriously and force parties to make meaningful, doable and realistic promises as well as deliver on them.

3. Should “good candidates” come forward and challenge the “bad ones” who represent status quo, negligent governance, corruption and what not?

My answer is no. Politics is serious business. Whether you like it or not, those who you think are representatives of status quo, bad governance, corruption and so on, have been involved in this for a very long time. The situation then is not skin-deep and cannot be eradicated by the snap of your fingers. You cannot suddenly wake up after the announcement of the election date and say that you will challenge the status quo. In fact, by doing so, you will be helping those candidates.

More “good candidates” against “bad ones” increase the chances of winning for them. Number of candidates in elections anywhere, particularly in Pakistan, is one of the key factors. There are many examples where you can see the “against” votes are more than the total number of winning candidates but since the candidates were too many, the change did not happen.

I think the “good candidates” have already missed the boat for 2018. But don’t worry, if you are still serious about challenging the status quo, your job starts on July 26, 2018 and you have five years to work for it.

4. Since all “tested” parties are corrupt and new parties consist of those who have already been a part of the tested ones, why don’t we encourage independent candidates to come forward?

No. In any democracy, political parties are the only legitimate vehicle to acquire power. The more you encourage the “independents”, the more you contribute to weakening of political parties as institutions. You won’t be surprised to know that money plays a huge role in politics anywhere, including Pakistan. More independent candidates mean more seats will be up for sale in post-election negotiations on formation of government.

This will be counterproductive for democracy and the institution of political parties. There can be many reasons why people run as independents but they have not helped the cause of democracy. Recent senate elections and not too long ago local government elections are good examples to say “no” to the trend of independents.

5. I don’t like any candidate. Should I stay at home and not vote?

Not voting is not an option. You staying at home gives a walkover to those who you don’t want to see being elected. If you want democracy to be your representative, you have to vote. It will take time until politicians realise you have the power to vote them in or out. Until then, you ought to show up and tell them that you care about your country and what happens to it.

6. Can I vote “none of the above”?

While this is in practice in some countries, it is not a viable solution, especially not worthwhile for constituency-based elections. Elections are meant to elect someone and not to elect no one.

In this case, while many people believe you should go for the “lesser evil” option, I have another suggestion that was liked by some of my friends during the last elections. Try to find a woman on the ballot and vote for her. If you can’t find a woman, try to find a non-Muslim candidate or any other candidate from Pakistan’s minorities and vote for them. Your vote may not win them a seat this time but it will give them a clear message that there are at least some people who like the idea of them contesting.

The list of questions can go on and on as we get closer to elections and further discussion will be required. However, I think, while disappointment and disillusion with mechanics of democratic process are not without a reason, one answer to all the questions above is for sure engagement and participation. It is great to raise questions and seek their answers but these questions should be asked with a mindset of contributing positively to the process and not for seeking excuses to stay away from voting.

Niaz Nadeem

Niaz Nadeem

Niaz Nadeem is a democratic governance expert by profession and a cultural activist by passion. He is also chairperson of Islamabad-based Indus Cultural Forum, the founder of Pakistan Mother Languages Literature Festival since 2016. He tweets @niaznadeem (twitter.com/niaznadeem)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

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