Young people’s political participation has been a growing concern since long. Loss of community ties, lack of political process, low level of trust on politicians and growing suspension on democratic institutions are many reasons of youngster’s week political association. But recent trends reveal that youth are much more interested into political knowledge than ever before. Labels like “the youth are apathetic” or they do not care about politics are enforced upon them by a status quo that does not understand the needs of young people. Young people are concerned with policy developments and the trajectory that their country is going through.Pakistan is one of the world’s largest youth bulge country with more than 63% of the population under the age of 25. The young and dynamic population is considered as an omen to the prosperity and future of the country. According to ECP, out of the total 85.42 million registered voters, 19.77 per cent of total voters were less than 26 years of age, while 14.91 per cent were between 26 to 30 years. The overall voter turnout recorded in General Election 2013 at 55.02%, much higher than elections since 80’s. The massive registration of the young population in election is an indication of revival of youth engagement in politics.Although, the increased youth engagement in politics is a good sign for flourishing democracy, this gives rise to many questions on how to keep the young blood motivated for future. Several high profile initiatives aiming at youth political participation including the launch of social media campaigns by several parties and the distribution of free laptops to students by the Punjab government has failed to engage youth permanently. These are mere temporary efforts gaining the support during elections. But all the actions seem dying off after the elections. We have yet not witnessed any concrete steps taken by the government to keep youth politically active.There is a strong need to diversify the avenues for youth political participation to discuss national issues. There are several young aspirants out there, who are highly motivated to get involved into politics even at a very young age. What they lack is a platform, where they can enhance their political understanding. The ban on student unions and violent nature of university politics makes it unattractive for youngsters. It is essentially required to build political youth organizations to engage youth in politics and keep them motivated to play best possible role for the future of the country. Engagement of young people should be the responsibility of everyone. Youth engagement should be acknowledged as a stirring strategy to create an impact in the lives of everyone.

We often hear politicians referring to the ‘court of people’ on TV. Whenever some politician is prosecuted against alleged corruption, we hear this ‘mantra’ of ‘the court of people’. The argument goes like this: Since people elected me, so they will decide whether I am crooked or not’. I find this argument absolutely amusing. Never underestimate power of crooked politician in muddling up issues! How can courts of law be interchanged with elections to determine whether somebody is financially clean or not? Elections only determine as to what extent a political party or a politician is able to articulate the demands of people. So, a politician may be extremely good at articulating demands of people and corrupt at the same time. That is why people all over the word have at times ended up electing politicians who later turned out to be corrupt. So, popularity of a politician is not a guarantee that the politician is financially clean as well. When facing corruption charges, they want to go the court of law so that they could dodge corruption charges while riding on the wave of popularity. Another mantra of politicians is political victimization when corruption cases are lodged against them. It is a fact as politicians have victimized each other, especially in the 90s. Police and other agencies have been used as tools by ruling set of politicians for their vested interests, including for selective accountability raising doubts about the way corruption related cases of politicians have been handled. As a consequence, our politicians have ended up politicizing serious issue of corruption. This is where the trouble lies. In other words, corruption is too serious a business to be left alone to the politicians. However, it is these politicians as our elected representatives have to put in place an accountability mechanism which has the legitimacy to conduct across-the-board accountability. In this regard, media, civil society groups and concerned citizens will have to play a crucial role in ensuring that effective accountability mechanisms are put in place at federal level and in all provinces. In this connection, comparative performance of recently established accountability commission in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and National Accountability Bureau can be very instructive after couple of years.

Being a woman myself, this blog post is rather close to my heart. I belong to the lot of fortunate urban women who can exercise their voting rights, however there are still many areas in Pakistan where women are either discouraged or out-rightly banned by the local communities from casting their votes. For quite a while now I’ve found myself complaining about women’s lack of participation in the voting process but most of my venting has been with close friends and family. However, I believe it’s about time that I stop preaching to the already converted and speak with everyone and anyone who’s interested in listening!

Now I understand that the 2013 General Elections showed some level of improvement, with a relatively higher female political participation. This is especially worth acknowledging because this higher level of women’s participation was despite terrorist threats and patriarchal opposition in certain remote areas.Women were also more actively involved politically, with more than 450 female candidates contesting for the seats in the National Assembly alone.

However, despite these improvements a lot more needs to be done before all Pakistani women can exercise their constitutional right of voting. Ironically, even today many political parties fall to the wishes of extremist and conservative forces when it comes to women’s political participation. We saw a glaring example of this in 2013 when the candidates of almost all the major political parties signed accords in the tribal regions barring women voters from casting votes or taking part in the political process!

This sort of behavior by political actors is unfathomable given the fact that under the devolution of power plan in 2000, the government reserved 33% seats at all tiers (national, provincial and local government) for women.

When given space and freedom to act, Pakistani women have always been a source of positive contribution in the political arena. Women parliamentarians have played a pivotal role in forming women-led caucuses and tabling key legislative bills. Furthermore, in Pakistan female politicians have held key offices such as former Prime Minister (Late) Benazir Bhutto who held the office from 1988 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1996 being the first PM of any Muslim country. Similarly there are many female politicians from all the parties have held key positions. Equally important is the fact that the overwhelming presence of nearly 40,000 women in local councils since 2000 has contributed enormously towards mainstreaming women into politics.

In the same realm we must also acknowledge the efforts of Malala Yousufzai, young Pakistani activist for female education and youngest female Nobel laureate as well and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Pakistani journalist and filmmaker who became the first Pakistani to win an Oscar. While these young women are not politicians they nevertheless exhibit the immense potential that Pakistani women have and how they excel and make the whole country proud when given freedom to follow their passions and put their skills to practice.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is the right time to make a sincere effort in order to ensure the participation and freedom of the women in elections. Every little effort by you and me can really go a long, long way in empowering female voters in our country. So next time you want to indulge in some drawing discussion on local politics, are looking for a meaningful subject to tweet on or you’re planning on sending out a letter to your local newspaper’s editor, make sure that inclusion of female voters is among the topics that you discuss. A little effort from all of us is pivotal for bringing a big shift in women’s political role in Pakistan.

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.

Though democracy is not all about elections, but still the electoral process has extreme significance in a democratic system as it is the cornerstone of superstructure of democracy. The electoral process gives right to individuals to elect their representatives who ultimately influence political foundation and direction of a government. In any civilized setup, while using the term elections, transparency of the whole process i.e., the same being free and fair is by default covered in the meaning of the term election. This has also been accepted as fundamental human right in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which sates in its Article 21 that “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives… The will of people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” The internationally accepted basic ingredients for elections in an ideal democracy to work are that they should be periodic, genuine, held according to universal suffrage and by secret ballot. For being periodic, there should be an element of certainty of time frame in which they are to be held e.g., four or five years or any legally specified intervals guaranteeing the citizens a chance to change their leaders or support new policies. For being genuine means they should be free and fair offering equal opportunities for contesting candidates and political parties without undue restrictions of law, balanced access to media for all and an independent and neutral electoral process. For ensuring universal suffrage, there should be maximum participation with simple and easy voter registration processes for citizens with bare minimum legitimate restrictions such as age, residence, proof of identity, etc. For being held on the principle of secret ballot, the purpose is to ensure that no one except the voter knows whom he has voted for. The objective is to prevent intimidation or reprisal by those enjoying power in a society either due to their political, administrative or financial status. For making sure that these basic ingredients are a part of any electoral process, there is a need to have a neutral, independent and autonomous institution enjoying trust of the citizens and political parties to conduct elections. In countries like Pakistan which have experienced long stints of dictatorship, the basic ingredients for a free and fair election have always been tampered with by the regimes to obtain results as per their desires. Different methods adopted for this purpose have been uncertainty of their timing, making laws to disqualify ‘undesirable’ political parties who could pose challenge to ruling junta, administrative support to ‘desirable’ parties or candidates and above all maintaining a weak election conducting body which should neither have the will nor the capacity to ensure a free and fair election. Resultantly, the possibility for citizens to express their will and opportunity to change their leaders and address wrongs is lost and credibility of the elections is frequently challenged. Consequently, people lose trust not only in the electoral exercise but also in democracy as elections are foundation of the same. This is generally followed by a political system marked by conflict and instability strengthening the argument of failure of democracy and in most cases leading back into the vicious cycle of dictatorship.

The most important ingredient of democracy is the electoral exercise in which people surrender their will to their chosen representatives providing them an opportunity of deliverance in a given time frame. Though the delivery period of governance has a mechanism of accountability through formal state institutions, however, performance appraisal of the elected representatives is also carried out to make them accountable to the people through an electoral exercise to complete the democratic cycle. In other words, the edifice of democracy is raised on the foundations of elections which must be free and fair so that will of the people is exercised by their true representatives.

In Pakistan, the primary institution responsible for carrying out elections is the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) constituted under Articles 213 and 218 of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973. It is headed by a Chief Election Commissioner and comprises four members, one each from all the four provinces. They are appointed by a twelve-member Parliamentary Committee with equal representation from the government and opposition. The Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of Opposition sends three names for each slot to the Parliamentary Committee for finalization which are then formally appointed by the President for a five year term.

The Chief Election Commissioner and Commission Members are the core functionaries to conduct elections in Pakistan. With a history of disputed electoral results in Pakistan, the wrath of an alleged unfair election has ultimately fallen on ECP and its Members and strengthening it is a major part of the proposed electoral reforms. The structural issues of ECP including lack of resources, autonomy and authority to carry out free and fair election and to make accountable those hindering a free and fair electoral process have been major impediments to achieve its objectives and are being duly addressed in the electoral reforms. However, the credibility of electoral exercise also greatly depends upon the integrity of Chief Election Commissioner and Commission Members. Though the process of appointment of Chief Election Commissioner and Commission Members are prima facie quite democratic, but still the same failed to ensure credibility to the elections and general election-2013 is the latest example which led to a political turmoil in Pakistan. The process, therefore, needs to be reviewed to enhance the acceptability of elections but is not being addressed in the electoral reforms.

Having half of the representation in the twelve-member Parliamentary Committee, the government needs just a single member for majority to make appointments of its own choice which is quite easy. Though some political theorists are of the opinion that government has the right for administrative appointments but others opine that the appointments in an electoral body should not be treated in the same manner. Requiring a higher level of neutrality to conduct an electoral exercise, the institution responsible for it has, therefore, been historically manned by judiciary in most of the democratic setups. The very act of revision of eligibility criteria in 22nd Amendment by making eligible retired civil servants and technocrats is against this spirit. There is a strong opinion that political parties being the most important stakeholders in an election should have no or minimal role in the appointment of electoral body. They should be from the judiciary with an institutionalized mechanism to fill the vacant slot of Chairman with the most recently retired Chief Justice or in case of his non-availability, senior most retired Judge of the Supreme Court. Similarly, the slot of Member from each province should be filled with the most recently retired Chief Justice or in the case of his non-availability, the senior most retired Judge of the concerned High Court. The spirit of this proposal is to devise a mode of appointment wherein the discretion of nominations by the government is eliminated. If it is incorporated and approved in the electoral reforms bill, it may enhance the credibility of ECP as well as of the elections carried out by it leading to restoration of trust of the people in electoral process and ultimately strengthen democracy.

Pakistan is sixth most populous country in the world, created on the basis of popular will of people in 1947 with the vision to have a liberal, moderate and democratic parliamentary federation. Soon after independence, Pakistan adopted British legacy constitutional framework and introduced the parliamentary democracy, following much from the Government of India Act 1935 – the last constitution of British India.However, Pakistan being a postcolonial state, the democratic experience was underpinned by the steel frame of bureaucracy and political stability and institutionalized democratic set up remained a distant dream. The country has a checkered history with a few interludes of democratic rule during the sixty eight years of its existence.

The first Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan was adopted in 1956 which was abrogated just two years later by the martial law. During the first eleven years, eight successively governments were formed and sooner collapsed. Unfortunately, the inconsistent democratic history continued till 2008, alternating between elected governments and long spells of military dictators since its inception.

Pakistan has travelled a long distance towards its march on the path of democracy. The parliamentary democracy collapsed four times primarily due to mismanagement, disproportionate development of institutional matrix and the mounting political ambitions of the military generals. The military dictators have always sabotaged political development and mainstream political parties; and have advocated religious, ethnic and tribal politics to legitimize their regimes by rigged referendum. Over the years, the support to religious and ethnic groups has led to underground nurseries for breeding of extremism and terrorism. During military regime there was considerable economic development and prosperity, however, Pakistan democratic institutions were crushed and country had to endure two wars with India. On the other hand elected politicians have not much contributed towards democracy rather have been involved in incessant cycle of corruption, dynastic politics, nepotism and money laundering during the short duration they were at the helm of affairs. The fruit of democracy – good governance – albeit remained a dream.

With the outcome of general elections 2013, it was for the first time that a politically elected government successfully completed its tenure was replaced by another democratically elected government. However, the credibility and acceptability of these elections remained questionable by some parties in the opposition, till an “Inquiry Commission” comprising Supreme Court Judges which declared the 2013 elections were in large part organized and conducted justly and fairly in accordance with the law and reflection of the true mandate given by the electorate. Even now, the people of Pakistan have to undergo a long way in quest for the thirst of true democracy, leading to ultimate goal of good governance.

The phenomenon of electoral violence is a major issue in nascent democracies of the world. In order to curb electoral violence, a multi-pronged approach is adopted all over the world which includes transparency in preparation of voters’ lists, delimitation of constituencies, freedom to vote without any extraneous political, social or economic pressures, transparent polling and result compilation process and a fair and swift electoral dispute resolution mechanism. The trust of voters on the transparency of these processes leads to a higher level of acceptability of the electoral process which itself is a mitigating factor for violence. As elections represent a contest for power, the very process is adversarial in nature. The intensity of this ingredient aggravates where political systems are not yet fully mature, literacy is low, people lack trust in electoral process and tribal, communal, religious or social pressures prevail over political ideologies. Resultantly, people resort to violent means due to lack of trustworthiness in the legal recourse. In order to offset such sentiments and ensure confidence of voters in the electoral exercise, the basic prerequisite is a strong legal framework supplemented by an effective administrative and enforcement mechanism.

In Pakistan, the existing legal framework for electoral process for general elections is enumerated in ‘The Representation of People’s Act, 1976’. For Local Bodies elections, almost same provisions have been incorporated in respective provincial local bodies’ laws. Besides ensuring transparency of the electoral process, the said laws also contain provisions to check electoral violence through delegation of magisterial powers to Returning Officers (RO) and Presiding Officers and placement of all executive authorities of government at their disposal. It has, however, been observed that despite provision of a reasonable legal framework, the recurrence of repeated violence in elections in Pakistan at all levels has been common. Though the culture of using violent means to ascend to political power is deeply entrenched, the same can be curbed if the legal framework is further strengthened and is effectively implemented.

The lynchpin in the electoral process is the RO and if his/her regulatory role is further strengthened, he/she can be an effective check on violence. The primary tool at the disposal of RO to curb violence is the local administration including Police authorities. Though in theory, all the executive authorities of the government are at the disposal of RO, practically it’s the district administration which calls the shots as they have under their direct command a trained field force with personnel, logistics and training to handle law and order. On the other hand, RO is temporarily placed for a short period of electoral process and is considered to be superimposed on the hierarchy of district administration and is dependent upon them. This dependence and short term appointment practically relegates the position of RO vis-à-vis district administration, making him/her less assertive in carrying out his duties particularly in maintenance of law and order. This situation puts no responsibility on those having resources and burdens those having practically no such resources under their direct command and control.

In order to rectify this anomaly, the maintenance of law and order should be the exclusive domain of district administration. There should, however, be stronger checks on them to offset the apprehension of interference in elections by the incumbent government to its advantage, especially in case of Local Bodies elections as the district administration is under its direct control. These checks may include provision of a quantified weightage by the RO in the relevant district administration officer’s annual Performance Evaluation Report on the basis of his/her performance. On the same lines, RO should have the authority to penalize the political party and individual voters who are proved to be involved in any incident of electoral violence. The penalty in such cases may include stripping an individual’s right to vote for life or a certain period of time, depending upon the nature and intensity of offence. Simultaneously, the political party or candidate whose activists are found involved in violence may be penalized by reduction of their votes by a certain number or percentage or even banning a party or a candidate from participation in election for a certain period of time in the said constituency, depending upon the nature of offence. These penalties may be in addition to the criminal proceedings under the existing laws. A set of legal changes to this effect may reinforce the authority of the ROs who in turn will have a better control of executive authorities of the government at their disposal. Moreover, the strong deterrence of penalizing the right of franchise and participation in election by political parties and individuals may force them to refrain from violence in the electoral process.

The primary pillar of democracy is the electoral process. For the same to be transparent and credible in true sense, people must have a free and fair opportunity to elect their representatives without any extraneous pressure. Any attempt to compel or force the people to go against their free will through extreme measures, particularly by use of physical or psychological force, is termed as electoral violence. In other words, the use of forcible means by an individual or a group to change the course of political will of an individual or a group of people during an electoral process is called electoral violence. The phenomenon of electoral violence is directly related to the social norms of a society. The social setups with low literacy rate, lesser political maturity particularly on part of political leadership, and weak administrative and judicial systems are more prone to political and electoral violence as compared to the societies who have a higher rate of literacy, developed political systems and greater political maturity.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is one of those countries where political systems have failed to mature due to intermittent military interventions, thus impeding political growth of the society. The major fallout of this has been lack of political maturity among the people as well as political parties leading to a culture of intolerance. Though political process has started taking roots, but the ingredient of tolerance and respect for people’s mandate is still lacking. The same emanates from top political leadership and stands true across the board for almost all political parties. The same is evident from the electoral processes till recent past wherein bitterness beyond parameters of decency among political leadership of various parties permeated to the lower tiers, leading to frequent incidents of violence during elections. In the recently held local bodies’ elections in Punjab and Sindh on 31 October, 2015, a number of people were killed including a single incident of violence on the polling day in Khairpur resulting in 11 casualties. Prior to this in the local bodies’ elections in KP, about 09 people were killed in a single day in May, 2015.

In order to eliminate the growing phenomenon of violence from our political and electoral system, the political environment needs to be raised to a higher pedestal of tolerance and mutual accommodation. The major responsibility for the same lies with the top political leadership as they are the main driving force to regulate political temperature in the country. The dominance of tribal mindset among the political leadership as well as general public which considers electoral defeat as loss of honor is the biggest factor of electoral violence in Pakistan. The same has trickled down from top political leadership to the lowest tier of political system wherein leaders in the heat of moment resort to rhetoric which charges the political environment leading to violence. In order to curb electoral violence, political leadership has to show maturity through an accommodating attitude and acceptance of people’s mandate as well as criticism within the parameters of decency. Simultaneously, the judicial and administrative setups dealing with electoral issues need to be more transparent and efficient as it’s the lack of trust in these systems which forces the people to self-adjudicate through violent means. In addition to these, the concept of elders’ committees at Union Councils comprising notables of the respective areas needs to be institutionalized to act as alternate dispute resolution bodies, particularly in case of electoral conflicts.