We Pakistanis are always discussing two things; cricket and politics. If any of us does not discuss these topics at least once every two days, I start doubting their nationality. So, following and propagating the Pakistani culture, we friends were having a heated debate on the current political situation in the country. And of course, following another national tradition, we were criticizing the class of rulers we elect by casting our votes. We started discussing the individuals we had voted or not voted for in our respective constituencies. We dissected their rise in politics to their family backgrounds, their statements, so on and so forth. And our heated debate of “one up man ship” stopped at the query “how do these people even get elected?”

This, as it turned out to be was a million dollar question. One of our friends took out his phone and from the national assembly web site read out these pre requisites for an aspiring MNA:

He should be citizen of Pakistan
Not less than 25 years of age
His name must be enrolled as a voter in the electoral list
He should also fulfill the qualities provided in Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
After he finished reading, almost all of us said unanimously “that’s it?” the answer was affirmative. All of us went into deep thought. Our contemplation ranging from “man that’s too simple” to “there has to be more” and “what is 62 & 63” “who will define the Article 62 & 63” and “if these guys can pass this scrutiny, it should be a piece of cake for me”

Then the argument erupted on a level not known to us before that moment. What is that they have and we do not that makes them qualify to be in the parliament? The answer was simple: 60 to 70 thousand votes!

The discourse of the deliberations shifted to how those are acquired. All of us agreed, at least for that one instant in the night that its because these are the only options available to voters. These are the only faces they are familiar with, these are the only names they get to read & hear.

And probably the reason for this is advertising campaigns. The massive advertisements on TV, fierce poster pasting, sticker distributing, corner meeting, grip & grin movement that seems super human. And of course, most of these things have a price tag.

Our designated “google boy” searched for the ceiling of spending election commission has given to a MNA for the campaign. The answer was 1.5 million. We all laughed aloud and to the point when our ribs started aching. The answer was obvious. The difference between them and us was that of at least Rs.3 million.

So the question the night wrapped up with was, are we eligible to contest, are we eligible to meet the ‘contemporary requirements’ and are we eligible be a parliamentarian at all?

For most voters the idea of voting is merely restricted to three primary items: a polling station, a ballot paper and a ballot box. This is especially true for first time voters, whose excitement to caste their vote is often more pronounced than their understanding of the many steps that ought to be considered before and after entering the inside of a polling station.

Much like most first-time voters, my first experience of casting my vote (which should have ideally taken under half an hour) became a three hour ordeal! This happened simply because I had convinced myself that knowing the election symbol of my candidate was all there was to voting – and boy was I wrong!

To help voters in general and young or first time voters in particular, this blogpost will discuss three important questions, i.e. “What is voter education?”, “Why is voter education important” and “What methods are available in Pakistan to facilitate anyone who wants to learn about it?”

Let’s start with answering the first question. Simply put voter education is any effort made by the Election Commission of Pakistan or public or private entity that aims to enhance the understanding of voters of electoral rolls, encourage them to check their details on the Final Electoral Rolls (FER) and supports in improving the voter turnout.

Voter Education is imperative for creating awareness amongst voters of all ages, belonging to all walks of life in order to increase their overall participation. Efforts geared towards Voter Education are often positioned to include the training of general masses, on several aspects of the elections – from campignig to casting the vote.

In the past, Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) efforts for Voter Education were mainly grounded in providing information through conventional print and electronic media, commencing shortly before electoral events and ending immediately thereafter. However, low voter turnout in previous elections highlighted the acute need for a different plan of action. Accordingly, in the recent General Elections held in 2013, we saw that ECP shifted strategy from merely disseminating Voter Information to developing more holistic Civic and Voter Education programs.

And this brings us to our third question, i.e. “What methods are available in Pakistan to facilitate anyone who wants to learn about it?” The ECP’s Voter Education Plan 2012-2013 revolves around a district centered approach, where staff at district offices become important actors responsible for implementing grassroots level voter education activities. Their aim is to directly reach out to all eligible voters, i.e. youth, women, people with disabilities, minorities and men. These groups are important because of their numbers and in most cases also because of their marginalized social status that often excludes them from exercising their right to Adult Franchise.

District Committees use a variety of means to approach and educate different categories of voters. These methods include, District Committee meetings held with community representatives, trainings for school, college and university staff; community voter awareness raising activities; Information Sessions at the offices of Provincial and District Election Commissioners; development and dissemination of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials; public service announcements and media engagement.

In our next blog we’ll discuss all the above mentioned methods, how individual voters can access these resources and benefit from them. Keep reading!

Irrespective of the language, culture or social norms of a specific region, there are certain integral values that remain unchanged across borders and divides. For instance, nowhere in the world have we ever seen masses demanding widespread anarchy and disorder; on the contrary, world over people want a functional system of governance to maintain rule of law in the society. Accordingly, it seems safe to assume that to see order and stability in the society is something that is inherent to all human beings. It is this integral need that propels us all to rally behind political leaders, cheer for them during processions and vote for them during elections – all the time hoping that the leader of our choice will bring prosperity once s/he is in power. However, our desire to see betterment in the society is not time bound and so it does not cease to exist upon casting the vote. This desire continues even after a new government is in place, driving us to scrutinize policies and actions of our governments and leaders. It is this drive for constant improvement in the environment around us that gives rise to another integral value that people across the world hold dear: accountability.

Accountability, by many, is considered the fourth leg of the metaphorical chair of good governance. It helps the masses to evaluate the effectiveness of public officials and public offices, ensures that they are performing to their full potential and ensures that at any given point in time there is enough public pressure on the political leaders to be responsive to the community they are meant to serve.

So, how can accountability be exercised? What mechanism should an average voter adopt to have his/her concerns heard? Who should we complain to and how can we reach such people and offices?

In Pakistan there are a number of institutions whose sole or partial purpose is to ensure that the government and its officials run the affairs of the state as transparently as possible. There are also specialized institutions where general people like you and I can lodge a complaint or register a concern that we might have regarding the functioning of the government.

Most of us here in Pakistan are well aware of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). With its offices in all the major cities of the country, NAB is Pakistan’s apex anti-corruption organization. Any and every Pakistani citizen is eligible to approach NAB with evidence against guilty government office holders, whether political or bureaucratic. The icing on the cake for the informer is that if the corrupt official is convicted because of his/her tip, NAB will also reward him/her!

While NAB is the primary government organization entrusted with the task of ensuring transparency, other public institutions include Public Accounts Committee, the Judicial Commission, Election Commission of Pakistan, Ombudsman institutions, the Federal Investigation Agency and various provincial agencies. For economic governance, there is another set of institutions: the State Bank of Pakistan, the Competition Commission of Pakistan and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.

Apart from government organizations mentioned above, the Parliament itself is one of the most important structures in the ‘chain of accountability’. The Parliament does not merely form the bridge between people and the government but its role is also critical because it is also the institution to which many accountability institutions report. Moreover, a Parliament and its elected representatives are important vehicles through which citizens and civic groups can also extract enforcement of various laws and policies.

Finally, the citizens have a dual role when it comes to ensuring accountable governance. On one hand the government generates data regarding its functioning to keep the citizens informed and on the other hand, the citizens themselves are an important source to generate data for better accountability. Confused? Let me explain! You see, in the age of smart phones, 24/7 internet connectivity and social media platforms such as Twitter, citizens can now hold the government and its officials accountable without a moment’s delay.

In short, there are sound mechanisms in place to ensure checks and balances for transparent and effective governance. However, it is not just the responsibility of the government to ensure the effectiveness of these mechanisms but every citizen also has an important role to play. So, whether it’s reaching out to NAB with important evidence or raising hue and cry on social media, you and I are the most important players in ensuring good, transparent governance!

Abraham Lincoln best defined the notion of democracy as: “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. This represents the inclusiveness of democracy that is reflective of the wishes of the masses i.e. the general public or Awam. In today’s blog we will try to analyze the role of general public in fostering democracy at the grass root level.

It is ultimately the public, who is in the position to hold their representatives accountable. However, for this accountability the active participation of the citizens is imperative. Unfortunately in developing countries such as Pakistan the electoral candidates are chosen often on the pretext of how much development work would he/she carry out in the constituency. This constituency-focused approach makes perfect sense with regard to Local Government Elections (LGE) because the very purpose of the local government is to work for the development of the concerned village, tehsil or district at the grassroots level. However, when choosing a candidate for the National or Provincial assemblies, it is imperative to keep an eye on the “bigger picture”, i.e. to see the impact that the candidate or political party of our choice will have on the national or provincial fronts. As citizens, while a enjoying a better standard of living is our right, we must also be mindful of our responsibility to vote for the candidate or political party that (to the best of our understanding) will play an instrumental role in uplifting the plight of the country at the macro level. This is especially important because while local government representatives are entrusted with working for the betterment of the specific village, tehsil or district for which they have been chosen, parliamentarians on the other hand are also responsible for legislation, i.e. laws that govern the working of the state at the national or the provincial level. Accordingly, our choice of candidate while voting for the national or provincial assemblies is likely to have a much greater impact on the welfare of millions of fellow citizens across the country or the province and hence, it is necessary that we think beyond the welfare of our constituency.

The political parties do come up with electoral manifestos but these are seldom put into implementation and are rather showcased for media. Once the elections are over, the citizens, much like most political parties forget about the promises made during the electoral campaign. However, with the new age of technology, citizens in many countries are finding innovative ways to ensure that pledges made by political parties and their leaders during election campaigns are not forgotten. An interesting example here can be of “Morsi meter” an online portal set-up by a group of citizens in Egypt to monitor the pledges made by President Morsi during his election campaigns. This digital initiative has successfully been documenting and monitoring the performance of Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, providing the citizens with a platform to have their voices heard, to hold the government accountable and most importantly to collectively exert pressure on the sitting government to deliver on its election promises.

Moreover, lack of voter registration is the missing link when it comes to grass-root democracy or local bodies elections. As citizens we need to understand that our voting right is not a privilege but rather a duty and we must register as voters in our respective communities and furthermore we must cast our votes during elections be it for national, provincial or local bodies. Citizens also play a pivotal role in strengthening the local bodies as they elect representatives such as councilors and Nazims. The local bodies’ representatives are the ones who are responsible to ensure provision of municipal services in the area. Through meaningful participation the citizens can ensure that their voices are heard and public officials take the necessary measures. Holding corner meetings in our local communities or during Friday prayers can carry out such participation.

Lastly, democracy cannot take its roots at the grass-root level without proactive engagement of females and marginalized communities such as the religious and ethnic minorities, transgender people and of course the youth. It is important to point out here that females make well over half of Pakistan’s population. This fact alone makes them a key stakeholder in the democratic process and for this reason it is essential that we take into account their needs and perspectives and effectively use their skills in trickling down the benefits of democracy to the masses. Similarly, more than 60% of Pakistan’s population comprises of youth. It is therefore imperative that young people are involved and empowered to make informed decisions about choosing the government of their choice. Finally, minorities – be they religious, ethnic or gender-based – have to be included in the fold as equal citizens. While most political parties speak about protecting the rights of the marginalized segments of the society, we as citizens have a huge responsibility to ensure that the minority segments are involved in the decision making process (at local, provincial or national level) and accorded their right as equal and empowered citizens of the state.

Media, plural of Medium, is a Latin word which literally means an intervening agency, means or instrument used to store and deliver information or data. In general, it is termed as a means of general communication, information or entertainment covering multiple modes such as press, photography, advertising, cinema, broadcasting (radio and television) and publishing. The term Media was first applied to newspapers about two centuries ago and since then it has also obtained a political connotation covering all mediums used to communicate political information to cross section of people that reaches and influences them as well. Initially covering newspapers and magazines only as print media, it expanded its scope to radio and television as electronic media while social media is the latest addition to it. As it greatly influences the opinion building of public, it is also termed as the fourth pillar of state. Media plays an indispensable role in effective functioning of a democracy. In electoral context, its importance as a watchdog is extremely valuable. It helps the voters to make their elected representatives accountable by highlighting their successes and failures during their tenures. It makes a critical analysis of policies of governments to help them perform better or revise the policies adversely affecting the public or national interest. It helps to make a comparative analysis of electoral practices and electoral bodies’ managements highlighting successful models across the world to help adopt international best practices and policies. This makes the electoral process transparent, thus restoring people’s confidence in the very foundation of a political process and the system. In short, Media educates the voters to help them exercise their democratic rights on merit by making an appropriate choice of a candidate or party in the electoral process. The Media contributes in this process by communicating to the voters the right information about performance, education, experience, achievements, future agendas and previous role of proposed candidates, political parties, governance systems and procedures to help the voters make a sound decision as to whom they should surrender their political will for best pursuit of national goals. However, in this situation, a great burden and responsibility lies on Media’s shoulders that they should remain neutral and above all political affiliations while reporting the election activities. A professional journalist or media house needs to be above board to convey a report or analysis by presenting all existing dimensions and opinions about the parties and individual candidates with minimum possible bias so that voters get more educated to vote for the best candidate or party in the run. The present trend wherein the journalists, particularly the electronic media anchors, have transformed their roles more into analysts with focus on enforcing their own opinions and wanting their audience to follow their preferences is a dangerous trend of imposing one’s thought process on others which can simply be termed as Media dictatorship. A more dangerous trend is the misuse of media power by certain individuals in the name of freedom of expression leading to blackmailing of certain individuals to cover their misdeeds or undue promotion of others to help them elevate their position in corridors of political power houses to get undue benefits in return. Some individuals in Media resort to such short term individual gains at the expense of their institution for earning favors from those in authority due to the powers which they enjoy or are likely to enjoy in future, thus promoting corruption and nepotism in the political system right at the time of elections. A more unregulated face of Media is the new trend of social media where anyone can express any comments which are sometimes in total disregard of the moral, legal or social norms of a civilized society and may undermine the political future of a political contestant creating bias against him. The need, however, is of an effective code of conduct for Media and a strong regulator so that responsible reporting is promoted and false, malicious and malafide content is filtered out with the realization that such a content can lead to their accountability and cost them heavily as professional mediapersons.

Should persons with disabilities be part of the electoral process and contribute to the public accountability of elected representatives? Although 98 census puts figures of disabled persons in the country at 2.5 % of the total population in the country, disability organizations have always contested this figure suggesting that disabled population is closer to around 10 % of the total population. This population of persons with disabilities has special needs characterized by the nature of different disabilities. Persons with disabilities have to face multiple barriers owing to their different disabilities. They can only take part in mainstream life if attitudinal, social and physical barriers are removed. Persons with disabilities can only ensure public accountability of elected representatives with regard to the realization of their special needs and creating a barrier free environment if they are able to exercise their vote power. We all know that like any other power, vote power only has value when it can be exercised. Can voters with disabilities exercise their vote power independently, in secret and with dignity like their non-disabled peers? What access barriers do voters with disabilities face while casting their votes? What is the policy of the Election Commission of Pakistan in this regard? People with disabilities face manifold barriers that hamper their participation in the political process. Some of these are attitudinal and others physical About the voting rights of the disabled persons, EC maintains, “Where an elector is blind or incapacitated and cannot vote without the assistance of a companion the presiding officer shall allow him such assistance”. This statement pays greater emphasis on the goodness of human nature rather than providing the equal opportunity environment to the voter with disabilities. It presupposes that allowance of the assistance of the presiding officer will help the disabled voter cast his vote independently, in secrecy and with dignity. This approach is a very limited one and offers assistance only at the polling station. It does not spell out off-site help to those PWDs who cannot come to the polling stations. We need to make Bill of electoral rights for citizens with disabilities part of our efforts to make electoral process inclusive for persons with disabilities. This bill was “drafted and endorsed by participants attending a four-day workshop held from 14-17 September 2002, in Sigtuna, Sweden. This bill calls on all states to meet their obligations in providing equal opportunity environment to the citizens with disabilities so that they could exercise their universal right of equal participation in the electoral process. Furthermore, Election Commission of Pakistan should adopt Standards of electoral access for citizens with disabilities. These standards can be very useful in our context and we will not have to reinvent the wheel. These standards address all issues pertaining to the voting rights of PWDs like non-discrimination, the state’s obligation to “overcome specific difficulties”, the right to a secret vote in public, providing options to the voters with disabilities in deciding the alternative ways they want to cast their votes, assistive voting, off-site voting and promulgation of instructions to the polling staff regarding voters with disabilities. [These standards can be very useful in our context and we will not have to reinvent the wheel. These standards address all issues pertaining to the voting rights of PWDs like non-discrimination, the state’s obligation to “overcome specific difficulties”, the right to a secret vote in public, providing options to the voters with disabilities in deciding the alternative ways they want to cast their votes, assistive voting, off-site voting and promulgation of instructions to the polling staff regarding voters with disabilities. Furthermore, Election Commission of Pakistan should adopt Standards of electoral access for citizens with disabilities.

Pakistan is democratic country that has witnessed intermittent elections due to repeated military takeovers. Due to this, the continuity of political processes, democratic development and institutional building in the country remained a dream. In 2013, country experienced the smooth transfer of power from one democratic regime to another because of hence to supposedly transparent, free, and fair General Elections 2013. Nevertheless, currently Pakistan is witnessing political crisis owing to alleged rigging in May 2013 General Elections invoked by some opposition political parties. The accusations and counter accusations have to be judged by the competent commission. However, the alleged or one can say a possible rigging in elections are mainly due to either non-availability or due to non-implementation of strong and effective legal framework related with electoral processes. The laws related with conduct of elections, political finances, and political parties are name of the few. The democratic development of Pakistan being in transition phase, there is need of electoral reforms that must include the requirement of enactment of new laws for political finance regulations and the steps taken to implement the existing one with letter and spirit. Pakistan legal framework for political finance regulation provides for three things, for instance, the prohibitions, limitations, and disclosure. If we review the existing laws, the legal provisions are either vague or incomplete and if available are partially implemented or mostly not implemented at all. Political parties and individual candidates spend funds on electoral campaign which are not strictly monitored according to law by concerned authority. According to law, as stipulated in sections 5 and 6 of ‘The Political Parties Order 2002, the political parties have to maintain bank accounts for party funds, contributions, and disbursement and to submit to ECP annual record. Similarly, sections 49 of the Representation of Peoples Act 1976, provides for limitation of election expenses to 1.5 million through a valid single bank account for a candidate contesting elections for National Assembly seat and limitation of election expenses of 1 million for a contesting candidate of Provincial Assembly seat. Additionally, section 50 of the ROPA 1976 provides for maintenance and return of election expenses constituted of contributions made and expenditures incurred to returning officers. As a matter of practice, after elections only few of the electoral candidates submit returns to ECP. Nevertheless, the returned candidates have to submit election expanses returns unless their official notification of being returned candidates is held by ECP. But, such returns are not counter verified during or after elections. Resultantly, there are observed several incidents of violations of election laws related with election spending. There is need to implement the existing political finance regulations and to enact the ones that are missing to make electoral process of Pakistan more robust, strong and independent of any influences. The need of enactment of new laws would be covered in subsequent blogs.

“Each Provincial Government shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibilities and authority to the elected representatives of the local government”, says article 140-A of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It has been almost four years since people in three provinces of Pakistan have remained deprived of their representative local governments, one Baluchistan, had LG elections in 2013. Inclusive and participatory government is privy to the definition of democracy and this can only be achieved when people are made part of the decision making process. Pakistan has seen four local government systems, three of them introduced by the dictators who wanted to get their legitimacy by reaching to the masses through local governments. The most visible and eventful, if not successful, was the system of local government introduced by Musharaf regime in 2001. This system was later defunct after the 2008 elections when democratic forces took over and the dictator was forced to resign. Elections in 2008 brought a new era of democratic rule in Pakistan that raised hope of the people for more share in the government but these hopes met with severe setback when the democratic forces failed to install a local government system even after completing a full tenure in office. All the political parties promised local governments in run for elections in 2013 but again it proves to be a long way to go. Establishment of local governments is the responsibility of the provincial governments who have not yet been able to act upon this constitutional injunction in three provinces. Though all the provinces have come up with legislation on local government but elections are yet to be held. There can be no second word on importance of local government, it brings governance to the door step of the people, makes them part of the governance process and includes their wishes in the local decision making. Local governments give ownership of the local resource to the people while making them responsible to resolve their indigenous problems locally. Hence local government empowers people with the resources as well as ability to use these resources for their collective good. The case for local governments becomes stronger when article 140-A comes forth for its endorsement. The incumbent provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have not only failed to establish democracy in its true form but it also implies that constitution has not been upheld. If Pakistan has to emerge as a democratic state it must strengthen democracy by implementing the constitutional injunctions and establishing local governments at local governments in all provinces.

Pakistan’s outgoing National Assembly of 2013 was the first one in the country’s history to complete a full five-year term. This elected assembly was also exceptional in another aspect. The activity of female parliamentarians was astounding. 20 out of 53 private members’ bills during the government’s tenure were moved by women, and women outperformed their male counterparts in terms of formal interventions during parliamentary proceedings

Although I am not a parliamentarian or someone close to the house, but, as a keen student of media and politics, I often noticed that women parliamentarians went the extra mile and put in the extra effort to prove their worth. Interestingly, even after proving their worth and effectiveness, the number of female candidates contesting General Elections in 2013 were fewer (36) than the number of female candidates who contested elections in 2002 (38).

Females make up more than 50% of our population. But their representation in the National Assembly is not at par with these numbers. I am not sure that a man will be as cogent a representative of women population as a woman could be.

One way to have a greater number of women elected directly to parliament would be to mobilize the large number of women in Pakistan who choose to remain outside the political process. Although more women voted in the 2013 elections than ever before, there are still 11 million eligible women who are not even registered to vote. It is in the interest of all political parties to liberate these potential women voters.

We can only have an optimistic future scenario if women are given meaningful participation in legislative process. The collective wisdom of women parliamentarians would go a long way in addressing the issues of the masses.

The women politicians also need to improve their public presence. They usually shy away from gatherings in their constituencies due to diferent reasons. Women politicians should get involved in the extensive social work and enhance their interaction with the community to polish their skills of general politics.

ECP officials shared after the General Elections of 2013 that turn out for women voters was 44 per cent in May 11 elections and 11 female returning officers were appointed. However, there were some 500 polling stations where women’s turnout was zero. It will be prudent if a law is promulgated which declares the results of constituencies null and void where women are not allowed to vote.

I think the most marginalized part of our society is that of transgender. They have got no civic rights what so ever. They are not allowed to study, make their living doing honorable work or the work which we may do ourselves. We cannot accept them doing anything but begging in the streets or dancing at our weddings and child births.

According to figures, there are almost 300,000 transgender in our country. I am sure the figure would be higher. But as we have pushed them to the periphery of the society and our living districts, they do not gel well with the main stream population and now reside in places less frequented by others.

Though, our law has been considerate, but the implementation efforts were not that generous. Our constitution guarantees that every citizen of the country will have equal rights. “There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex.” reads one of the articles of our constitutions. But, can that be said when we talk about transgender?

They got the right to a CNIC just 3 years back!

A few of our parties approached them for their votes. Yet, none of our political parties’ manifesto had anything in it for this marginalized part of our society.

There have been instances of their involvement in our electoral process. One of them was brave enough to contest the elections. I was going through one of his interviews and it made a very interesting read. The interview showed the reality of our political system in a candid honest, yet shameful way.

The person said that even after the elections have gone, he still gets death threats. He had to be escorted by the police during his election campaign due to security concerns. The police is not helping in regards to the death threats and the best solution they have offered him so far is, “turn your phone off”. Just imagine the agony a citizen of any country would feel if those responsible to protect him would give such an answer. I am sure the other candidates would have gotten a better response from the law enforcement agencies.

The poor soul was not even eyeing for the win in the election. According to his own words, his victory was when his nomination papers were accepted. And that too were through Sindh High Court, as his papers were earlier rejected by the competent authorities.

Pointing out to the reasons of his loss, he was certain that funding was the most important aspect of a campaign. His opponents had enough money to plaster the whole constituency with their messages.

If we envision democracy being strengthened in our country, democratic values gaining roots in our system, we have to provide every one with a level playing field otherwise the current state of affairs will sow seeds of hatred in our political system to the extent of embitterment.

The transparency of spending during the election campaign is one of the most crucial factors which ensure transparency of elections and credibility of its results.

It especially becomes tricky when you consider spending of the incumbent government. The system has to ensure that the government in power is not using its influence to manipulate elections of using official resources in terms of money and machinery to sway votes in its favor.

There is a stringent clause in the code of conduct chalked out by the election commission of Pakistan in this regard: “Issuing of advertisements at the cost of public exchequer in the newspapers and other media and misuse of official mass media during the election period for partisan coverage of political news and publicity by the Federal, Provincial and Local governments shall be prohibited.”

Since the advent of private media, election advertisement has become a very effective and widely used tool of promotion by the contesting parties.

I distinctly remember the last elections. Although, the caretaker governments took charge of the country for three months of elections, but, there were campaigns which I believe are equal to using public resources for electioneering. If my memory serves, almost four months before the elections, almost all the governments in the country started airing advertisements of their accomplishments and projects with pictures of their party chiefs and such. I am sure these advertisements were part of the election campaign indirectly if not directly. And of course were aired by resources from the public exchequer.

If my tax money is being used for a project, I do not see any right of any political party labelling as its own. That is my money being used for my progress.

I think a law needs to be promulgated which bars any government to “label” any project with pictures of even messages of their chieftains. After all, government is a public service enterprise.

Armed with my vote registration information and electoral information, which I got from sending my CNIC number to 8300, I ventured to the polling station to cast my vote. With a quicker heart beat and suspense that who will win the elections, I walked with my head held high, sure in my heart that my vote will shape the future of my country.

The whole country was engulfed in the colors of elections. Every street was plastered (sometimes very untastefully) with election slogans; candidates profile pictures and banners displaying their past achievements trying to influence the voter to give their vote to them.

I was welcomed by a long queue, of at least 200 people waiting to poll their vote. Of course, my first reaction was that of any one who is in a queue of bills payment or in a traffic jam. But, I was very happy that most of us have woke up to our civic responsibilities and that we have decided to exercise the power of our vote.

The setting was electrifying. Slogans of various candidates and parties were swirling in the air. Sometimes irritating, but was creating a splendid back drop to the process of casting vote. I saw a couple of groups heatedly raising slogans in competition with each other. I was a bit worried that they might go head to head but to my relief, nothing untoward happened.

After about two hours of waiting, at last I was at the desk of the polling officer who checked my CNIC against his list and verified my vote number. He marked my thumb with permanent ink. I actually felt very proud of this mark and felt like a girl trying to protect her fresh coat of nail polish from getting smudged.

Then came the desk of the Assistant Presiding Officer. He filled the counter foil with my details and stamped on the back of the green National Assembly voting ballot paper which he then gave to me. On the next desk, the second Assistant Presiding Officer gave me the white ballot paper for Provincial Assembly, repeating the same process as the first one did.

With my voting ballot papers in my hand, I felt like James Bond, going behind the screen and casting my vote in secret. Looking over my shoulder over & over again, to make sure that no one is peeping in my booth to make my “secret” public. After stamping my favorite candidate for both the assemblies, I walked out of the screen, holding the ballot papers very near to my chest. I did not want to lose them!

I put my white Provincial Assembly ballot paper in the white top ballot box and green ballot paper for National Assembly in the green top ballot box.

And I walked out of the polling station, with my head held high and warmth in my heart that I have played a small but vital role in shaping the future of my beloved country.

Being an avid Twitter user, I usually get my scoop of the hottest discussion topics in Pakistan from the top trends that do rounds on this micro-blogging website. One trend that has been popping up every now and then recently is #ImplementBiometricSystem. In all honesty for the first few days I was too lazy to search out what this trend actually signified – I mean I had a working understanding of what biometric system was but there was little understanding when it came to introducing it for the electoral process. However, eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I finally went to Reverand Google for some answers and what I discovered is worth sharing with you!

Now it’s not exactly a ground-breaking statement but for democracy to function in its true spirit, one of the most important pre-requisites is of course a voting system that is accurate, transparent and fully authentic. Biometric Voter Registration offers all these three traits and expotentially minimizes the risk of rigging. Biometric Voter Registration System (BVRS) is a highly advanced information system that allows to enroll and identify millions of voters quickly and unmistakably. Using biometric identifiers (such as finger prints or iris scanning), the possibility of election fraud is minimized, at the same time considerably accelerating the voter identification process.

While the biometric technique for authentication of voters can be considered the answer to Pakistan’s voting woes, however as is the case with all man-made things, this system also has its share of cons. For instance, a problem may arise in the management of such a large database. Secure Connections are needed for confidential data retrieval of the information. Also, given the fact that the use of biometric technique in the issuance of ID cards is fairly recent in Pakistan, implementing the procedure and giving all eligible citizens a biometric identity will take a long time. There is then the issue of the cost involved because biometric authentication devices are extremely expensive. Finally, the issue that is perhaps most pertinent to Pakistan is that of illiteracy. A significant number of the registered voters are not literate and if biometric voting system is introduced, they will certainly face a huge challenge in operating the biometric voting machines at the polling booths.

In a nutshell, yes, the system is tedious to implement, but once it is done, the biometric system can revolutionize the electroral process in Pakistan. Perhaps, a logical approach would be to pilot it in major urban centres first and then gradually move towards carpet coverage of all constituiencies in the coming years.

Democracy in Pakistan has historically witnessed multiple deaths in infancy by repeated military takeovers due to a number of reasons. The dilemma of failure of political leadership in initial years to take prompt decisions regarding the type of government and powers of federating units was the first act of weakening the foundations of a strong democratic setup in Pakistan. By delaying these decisions and not holding elections, which is the very foundation of democracy, the initial political leadership undermined establishment of democratic culture and norms by attempts to continue in power by any means which also included obtaining support of military establishment by giving it a formal role in political setup. Emboldened by the dependence of political leadership on military and continued internal political rift creating an unstable political environment, military establishment seized power apparently encashing the public perception to set things right. Democracy, however, became a permanent casualty since then and all intermittent attempts to restore it saw repeated cycles of same political instability, witnessed in the initial years, repeatedly ending up in military takeovers. The necessary ingredients of democracy include free and fair elections followed by setting up of strong and independent institutions of executive, legislature and judiciary. A strong executive is supposed to efficiently run the government as per people’s aspirations in properly defined legal parameters with the basic duty of protection of life, property and economic and political interests of the people. Effective and strong instruments of accountability are a prerequisite for this to oversee the executive from acting as dictators. An effective legislature is supposed to make laws to facilitate the formation and implementation of government’s policies more effective and transparent to align and promote public and state interests. Most important in this respect is the role of judiciary which is supposed not only to ensure that existing laws are being implemented in their true spirit rather it has to check the arbitrariness of executive as well as to provide easy access to justice to every citizen. In view of the above defined ingredients of democracy, it is still a million dollar question whether Pakistan is on the right track to attain these ingredients or it is still under shadow of political culture of its initial years of history. A review of the state of governance in the existing democratic set up with mainstream political parties at the helm of affairs since 2008, there are varying perceptions about credibility of democratic process in Pakistan. Critics question whether Pakistan has been able to strengthen democratic process by ensuring strong institutions of executive, legislature and judiciary? Has the government been successful in ensuring relatively better safety and security of life and property to the citizens as compared to past? Is justice being delivered more promptly and effectively than before? Do the citizens feel enjoying more political rights, civil liberties and greater economic opportunities in a political setup? Though some optimists consider that all these conditions have witnessed improvement and continuity of democratic process will further improve the situation. However, there are others who are of the opinion that leadership is still showing political immaturity like the leadership of initial years. They are of the view that if any party has reservations on election results, what is the harm in obstructing an independent verification of the same. Some also opine that failure to timely evolve and implement a security policy as well as lack of judicial reforms to ensure prompt justice resulted in establishment of military courts which has reduced the space of governance for civilian setup which is in fact failure of civilian establishment and may increase distrust of public in the democratic system. Though pessimistic, but some perception exists about a friendly opposition to government in the garb of reconciliatory politics which has eliminated a strong check on the government. Resultantly, with all these perceptions coupled with failure of political leadership to deliver may result in failure of democracy in the country which will only strengthen the voices who consider Pakistan as unfit for a democratic form of government.

As we hear a lot about local government elections to be held this year, it is important to understand essentials of an effective local government. Local government means devolution of power at the local level. In other words, there is decentralization of power and power is shifted from the centre to the local level. The assumption is that locals will be able to take decisions about local matters after local governments are put in place after the elections. If it happens, it will be a gigantic step towards democracy. Will provincial governments share powers with districts?
After the 18th Amendment in the constitution, provinces have greater administrative autonomy. Furthermore, the provinces enjoy greater level of financial devolution after the reconstitution of National Finance Award. The irony is that the provinces are not willing to share the financial resources with the districts exactly on the same criterion the provinces have got those resources from the centre. The provinces are trying to control districts exactly the same way the centre used to control provinces. Until and unless provinces do not bring their Provincial Finance Awards in line with the National Finance Award and share resources with districts giving them greater financial autonomy, an effective local government at the district level will remain a mere pipe-dream.