Votes from Space; Facilitating Voters is Crucial for Pakistan too!

(Shahnawaz Sarmad, Lahore)

Trump is in news everywhere whether it’s print, electronic or online media and from traditional political discussions in streets of Pakistan to the global stage. World seems to be shocked on “unexpected” win of Donald John Trump in U.S presidential elections and debate on outcomes of this result is still hot. Some Americans dismayed by the results organized street protests, and college students walked off university campuses. A fresh wave of “Exit Movements” is seen as Californians are calling for withdrawal from the US federation. Similarly, pro-Texas independence organizations are coming to a single platform “Texas Nationalist Movement” to seek a peaceful exit. Online media once again played a pivotal role in motivating public since Calexit campaign sprung up and quickly gained traction in the digital world. On the other hand, Trump had announced to issue forceful “exit permits” to immigrants during his presidential campaign. Uncertainty is prevailing among immigrants and they are under a constant threat of deportation. A week before elections, many Americans had declared their intentions that they would flee to Canada if Donald Trump won. It proved to be true when Canadian and New Zealand’s Immigration websites got crashed due to a significant increase in the volume of traffic from U.S on the same night that millions of votes were pouring in for Trump. Muslims are concerned about what his presidency may bring, though newly elected president eventually stepped back on his vow to implement a complete ban on Muslim immigration.

Despite unexpected and stunning electoral results, developing nations like Pakistan, had many lessons to learn regarding electoral proceedings like use of advanced technology that provided citizens right to choose their candidate even when they were in space, about 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Shane Kimbrough is the latest US astronauts out of many who have been able to vote from space since 1997.

It’s an agony that, in U.S, people are casting votes from space since 20 years; on the other hand, campaigns to develop a mechanism for overseas Pakistanis to use their right to vote are not being taken seriously since long. Similarly, there is no easy way for government employees to cast their votes. This is also a reason that in our whole electoral history, turnout has never crossed even 60 per cent which definitely has affected the process of choosing right people as our leaders. Consequently we were left far behind in a fast paced world.

According to 16th U.S president Abraham Lincoln, democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, which proves that participation of “people” is of utmost importance in electing a democratic government. Unfortunately most of Pakistanis usually do not vote because they feel that one vote does not count and it makes no difference if they vote or not. However the truth is different, because each vote counts in many ways, your choice to vote or not will make an impact on lives of millions of your fellow countrymen. Law makers, elected through public ballot, legislate policies and laws that affect public for years to come. If everyone used an excuse and did not vote, we shall blame each other for government we shall have.

Although if we try to convince public to make a difference through vote, it is equally important for people in power to take practical steps to make electoral process transparent, fair and peaceful which is the only way to build and restore public trust in balloting. But the irony is our politicians do not seem to have any serious intent to make this happen. Especially no significant development has been made to facilitate voters so far. Some of the reforms are most crucial to be implemented in coming elections.

Terrorism has hit Pakistan so frequent that people are afraid of going to crowded places. Maintaining a peaceful setting is of vital importance to build public trust and bring voters to polling stations. For this matter of grave concern, government needs to revise its (hidden) policy of keeping provincial police departments weak to use them in tempering electoral results and as a power-tool whenever needed. Calling army every time to conduct free, fair and peaceful elections is not the real solution, strong police departments can better do the job. Practically police is closer to public than other law enforcement agencies because they are always in a constant interaction. We also have seen betterment in this regard, like KPK Police is said to be free from political pressure, similarly, Punjab Police has proved itself a lot more capable in context of excellent security arrangements for recent events like visits of foreign delegations, security of foreign experts working on CPEC, Ashura and International Cricket Matches. They also have maintained state writ against protestors without using a bullet and have fought terrorism as front line force. They deserve to be strengthened to work more efficiently. Now is the time to take realistic steps towards making institutions powerful.

Turnout in 2013 general elections was 55%, which is considered to be one of the highest turnouts in history of Pakistan. But with a little more effort, this turnout could be increased by manifolds. Election commission of Pakistan should establish or allocate more polling stations near to home to voters for general elections 2018. Polling stations on walking distance will not only increase women participation but can also make the process transparent, as no candidate will be able to influence the voters by providing them transportation. Proper facilitation to the special persons and facilities of drinking water, waiting place, easy ways to approach polling booth for general public will also help in achieving the goal of maximum turnout.

About 6.7 million of Pakistanis are living abroad and have no right to vote according to the constitution of Pakistan. In the absence of any law on the subject, neither the ECP nor the SC is in a position to take any steps. In a recent statement, the ECP said it was sincerely taking into consideration the matter of the basic right to vote of expatriates holding Pakistani citizenship. Anyhow the successive governments have tried to introduce amendments in the law in order to let Pakistanis around the world cast their votes. The issue has been pending with the Supreme Court since 2010. An ordinance to this effect was promulgated two days before the May 2013 general elections, but it served no purpose because the matter required a lot of work, including the mode of voting. The ordinance lapsed after four months. Different options to facilitate voting by Pakistanis living abroad through postal ballot, internet and in-person voting could be considered.

The idea of postal ballots appears to be a top priority in recent discussions, but modalities for this would have to be worked out for making the process transparent and avoiding any misuse and manipulation. The need of the hour is to expedite the process through standing committee on electoral reforms, so that by 2018 general elections, we have a solution on this issue.

In recent General Elections of 2013, about a million public servants performed their duties far from their home station, where their vote are registered. To facilitate to exercise their right of vote, ECP invites applications for postal ballot from government employees. But unfortunately only a few of them exercise their right to vote because others don’t give this social responsibility any importance and the awareness level in employees about this privilege is very low. The ECP should make it sure that all personnel deployed on election duties get appropriate information about using their right to vote.
Pakistan has the lowest voter turnout in South Asia. Lack of voter trust and education has been identified as two of the primary reasons behind this indifference and lack of participation.

In order to make the election system successful in Pakistan voters must be aware of the importance and value of their votes. It is the awareness, which will enable the voters’ to choose a correct candidate and to make him accountable. Voters’ education should commence from enlistment of their names in voters’ lists up to the casting of votes in polling booth. ECP needs to launch a massive campaign before GE 2018 to attract voters to come to the polling stations on Election Day and cast their votes. Special strategy should be designed to engage youth voters, as the make a major portion of the total population and vote bank.
Lack of power and independence of the ECP has always been in question by political parties in Pakistan whenever the electoral reforms are discussed. It is the key institute responsible to organize free and fair elections and should be autonomous, powerful and out of influence of any person, political party, government or any other institute so that our voice could be heard more loudly and more clearly through polling.

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