I had often thought that universal suffrage — the right to vote of all adults, men and women, poor and rich, literate and illiterate, has become a universal truth in Pakistan too, but every time I was proved wrong. Opponents still exist. Who are they? Why are they against it and how do they manipulate universal suffrage in their favour? As the general elections in Pakistan are around the corner, there is a need to unmask their tricks.
Pakistan inherited the “representative democracy” model from the British. Though Great Britain had introduced adult franchise in the UK in 1921, in India it continued with a selective suffrage. With independence came universal suffrage in both Pakistan and India. It was a “great leap forward” and indeed a revolutionary step, but we got it at a huge cost.
Consider. Prior to the adult franchise, only educated, taxpayers and property owners had the right to vote. With the advent of adult franchise, all voters became equal as far as right to vote was concerned. However, the basis of electoral constituencies shifted from social to geographical area only. Why? Had the social classes been kept as the base of constituency, the ruling elites might have lost power forever to the working people, due to their inherent minority. Therefore, it was imperative for them to make area-specific constituencies. This was gerrymandering of the highest order and perhaps the most wicked.
Despite this, ruling elites have found it difficult to keep their control over electorates all over the globe. In the West fear of others, ie, immigrants, Muslims and economic nationalism is being used to deceit voters. Besides this, in countries like Pakistan and India the rich political dynasties and their goons shamelessly buy votes and if need arises they won’t hesitate to coerce and harass voters. Sadly, often women and the poorest of the poor are the easiest prey.
It seems plausible to argue that as the poor voters realised that their representatives had no interest in their welfare and repeatedly failed to fulfill election promises, and didn’t hesitate to amass wealth through corruption, they began to lose interest in democracy and its value. Push and pull factors acted simultaneously. For instance, vote buying was almost non-existent in India until 1980. Afterwards, it continued to increase with each coming election.
Some studies have found slums the most attractive fetching place for vote buying because of “high population density, larger family size and extreme poverty.” And above all most slums were being controlled either by goons or caste elders. This makes vote buying and compliance easy. An Indian MP told me in 2004, he had spent roughly $30,000 on vote buying and almost the same amount of money on alcohol to keep his supporters happy. He also said that he had spent nearly $15,000 on hiring gangsters in order to punish non-complying voters. According to some estimates, in India the vote-buying rate per family ranges between $75 and $100 on average.
Recently I met a highly-educated Pakistani politician who had faced defeat in the 2013 general election. In his view he lost because his opponent had distributed money to poor families, while he didn’t. “Now I have identified seven poor localities in my constituency and I am negotiating the vote rate with their elders. This would erode my opponent’s edge and create equilibrium,” he said with a touch of pride. He also said he was willing to pay Rs3,000 per household. He is not alone. Like in India, vote buying started to rise in Pakistan after 1988 when the Chhanga Manga episode took place. Since then, horse-trading had engulfed our legislative assemblies. Just remember the recent Senate elections.
Simply, the MPs who buy votes in general elections are highly likely to sell their votes for Senate election. This vicious cycle will deepen vote-buying practice and undermine democracy itself. Roger Cohen — a renowned author and journalist — recently wrote a lengthy article titled “How democracy became the enemy” in Poland and Hungary. In our part of the world, often the “representative democracy” acts against the ordinary people because of vote buying, coercion and corrupt practices.
A definition of vote buying is needed here. “Any reward given to a person for voting in a particular way or for not voting can be called vote buying.” This reward could be cash, a job, a gas/electricity connection or a promise. Based on the above-mentioned examples and literature on vote buying, it could be argued that the poorer are highly likely to be the target for vote buying in our region. Inequality ruthlessly serves the powerful.
Inequality is not an outcome of a natural process; it is a product of certain anti-people (or pro-rich) policies. The successive ruling parties did little or nothing (intentionally) to uplift the poor or to narrow the structural inequalities. China doesn’t have “representative democracy,” yet it has brought 700 million of its people above the poverty line in three decades, says a World Bank report. We must ask our rulers, why they fail us time and again? We know they would never answer. Some scholars however argue that keeping a certain percentage of poor people along with inequalities is necessary for the elites in order not only to guarantee the flow of cheap labour but also to retain a vote bank. This makes them electable. Make money when in power and use that money to come to power.
Seemingly, our elites will continue safeguarding their interest by keeping social and economic inequalities, including illiteracy and poverty. While there is an urgent need to campaign against the elites’ hegemony, it is also imperative to demolish the myth of area-based electoral constituency. It is a fact that the elites are already using social group based constituency, ie, quotas in legislative bodies and local councils for women, peasants/workers, youth and minorities, but only to serve its own interests.
Remember keeping poor children illiterate is a critical tool. The youth who were opposed to allow illiterates to vote must acknowledge inequality of literacy is also a product of a deliberate public policy. Today, 25 million children are out of school in Pakistan. After a few years many of these children would become voters — but as illiterate ones. Thus the vicious cycle of powerlessness will continue for decades to come. Let’s end the commodification of votes.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2018.