Mobilising women voters could be the chief engine to democratic progress. Simply holding regular elections is not enough to be called a functioning democracy. Establishing a constitutional democracy requires ensuring that no one’s right to vote is suppressed in any way. A new report by the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) reveals that voter turnout was deliberately suppressed during a recent by-election in Balochistan as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) failed to set up voting booths for women at over two-thirds of polling stations. There was also a distinct lack of women staff at the polling stations, leading to a low turnout of female voters.
The fault here lies primarily with the ECP, which has a duty to ensure the smooth and fair running of elections in as conducive an environment as possible. But the political parties also need to be apportioned their share of the blame. In previous elections, particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, all the parties came to an unspoken agreement that women should not be allowed to vote and some constituencies have held elections without a single woman voter. Not only is this an affront to democracy, it ensures that the status quo is upheld. Mobilising women voters could be the chief engine to democratic progress and could also lead to the election of more women on general seats. We have seen in the current parliament that women selected on reserved seats have been among the most active legislators. Suppressing women’s vote would only worsen the problem.
There are other worrying signs that the upcoming general elections may not be as free and fair as we hope. Some political parties have asked for a military presence at the polling, which is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse, and the ECP has seemed worryingly conducive to the idea. Then there is the ever-present danger of volunteers sent by political parties to polling stations suppressing the vote bank of other parties through intimidation and violence. Preventing this will require an ECP that does not cower under pressure, whether it comes from GHQ or the political parties.