Pakistan’s voter turnout conundrum

Published: March 29, 2012
The writer is an undergraduate student at Harvard University, Class of 2014. He is also the Chairman of Harvard University’s John F Kennedy Jr Forum. He tweets @ibrahimakhan

The writer is an undergraduate student at Harvard University, Class of 2014. He is also the Chairman of Harvard University’s John F Kennedy Jr Forum. He tweets @ibrahimakhan

In a democracy, a citizen’s vote is an empowering right. It is tragic then that in 2008 general elections, voter turnout across Pakistan was a meagre 44.1 per cent. In 2008, Bangladesh had an 87.4 per cent voter turnout in its parliamentary elections. In India’s 2009 general election, voter turnout across the five phases was 59.7 per cent. To make our democracy work, voting is of paramount importance.

In search of an explanation for this anomaly, I analysed voter turnout in each district of Punjab through a simple linear regression model. Using data from the 1998 Census, the 2011 Punjab Development Statistics Report, the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey, the Lights Report of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the 2008 General Election Report, I found interesting and often surprising correlations.

Most tellingly, there is a strong positive correlation between income per capita and voter turnout. In large cities, areas with higher living standards have lower voter turnout. Across Punjab though, this is not the case; in fact, the opposite holds. In 2008, districts with higher levels of income per capita had higher voter turnout. Outside urban centres, economic development drives voter turnout. There is a simple explanation for this trend: regions with proportionally higher levels of income have more at stake during an election.

While income strongly correlates with turnout, literacy rates across districts do not. An area with relatively high literacy is not necessarily going to have high voter turnout. Again, this defies conventional wisdom. It is generally believed that with a higher prevalence of education there is more involvement with the political process. But, puzzlingly, the data say otherwise. There is a potential explanation for this incongruity: the literacy rate statistic is inherently flawed. An individual is considered ‘literate’ if they can read a newspaper and write a simple letter. If turnout was regressed on a statistic of educational quality, perhaps, a stronger correlation would be observable.

Crime per capita in a district is negatively correlated with voter turnout in that district. If a district has high crime per capita, voter turnout is bound to be low in that district. As law and order improves and crime per capita falls, turnout is higher. When voters feel secure, they have more faith in the system and have a greater incentive to turn up on election day.

The number of union councils per capita is positively correlated with voter turnout. If a district has more union councils per capita, that district is more likely to have a higher voter turnout. This is probably because as the number of union councils per capita increases, individual voters have greater interaction with local government officials. With greater interaction, voters are more inclined to vote during a general election.

Diverse sets of factors correlate with voter turnout in Pakistan’s 2008 general election. While it is important to remember the statistician’s mantra of correlation is not causation, each of these factors lends insight into our low turnout. With economic development, we can expect turnout to rise. As law and order improves, voters will be more comfortable at polling stations. As the local government improves, confidence in the political process will heighten and voters will be proud of their right to vote. We often speak about the evolution of democracy, but democracy cannot evolve unless we vote for the right candidates. As my research shows, we are not pushed to vote unless incomes rise, crime rates fall and local governments are strengthened. But none of this is possible if we do not utilise our vote.

It is most disappointing to see low turnout in urban areas where education levels are higher. If we have been privileged with an education, the least we can do is to vote, thereby fulfilling our basic responsibility as citizens of this democracy. We need to lead our country out of this vicious cycle of low turnout and into a better future. Luckily for us, it starts with ticking a box.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Falcon
    Mar 29, 2012 - 11:56PM

    Ibrahim – Good analysis. At least I learnt something valuable. As for your observation on high correlation between urban educated segment and low voter turn-out, I think that is quite understandable taking into consideration the fact that urban middle class voter has not been interested in traditional politics for few decades now. This has changed with the rise of IK and PTI. I am sure that the same demographic will show much better results in the next election.


  • AnIndian
    Mar 30, 2012 - 1:29AM

    The trend of voting percentage being low in Urban areas and among Educated is True in India also (although, recent figures are encouraging).

    Once, a proposal was brought to Jawaharlal Nehru about including only the educated in the electorate… Nehru’s response was prompt and scathing: “that is a damn good way to make sure the country goes to the gutters”.


  • Ali Zaid
    Mar 30, 2012 - 2:42AM

    you are one of the best writers on the Tribune. keep writing.


  • Mar 30, 2012 - 2:44AM

    dear Ibrahim, wonderful initiative. To repeat the manta, correlation does not imply causation. You might want to explore more deeply the drivers of electoral participation in Punjab – check out The Pakistan Voter: Electoral Politics and Voting Behaviour in the
    Punjab for a great overview. The idea of the fungible voter, for example, is not prevalent in Pakistan as it is in the United States. So, high voter turnout in richer areas has likely more to do with party mobilization in those areas than with voter incentives. Similarly, constituency borders are drawn (in Punjab by PML-N) to include/exclude communities with the intent of securing votes for the party’s candidate, introducing externalities and complicating the model’s implications.
    For a more basic critique of quantifying democratic participation, check out Wadeen’s Peripheral Visions – I think you would find it interesting. excellent work, though!


  • Farhan
    Mar 30, 2012 - 2:44AM

    Our low turnout has always puzzled me. Good analysis; thanks for this!


  • Hafeez
    Mar 30, 2012 - 4:13AM

    Well, it is a good effort. But then how come voter turn out is usually between 50 to 60 percent in USA? They are educated, low crime rates in most of the areas, quality of education is better. The particular election you are referring to were also held in time of high security risk, such as terrorism across the country. It would have been better to compare elections over time in Pakistan and then some good conclusion can be made. Just my two cents


  • Researcher
    Mar 30, 2012 - 6:40AM

    @Hafeez: Turnout in 2002 was 41%, in 1997 it was 36% and in 1993 it was 40%. That is low compared to a world average of more than 60%.


  • Mirza
    Mar 30, 2012 - 9:34AM

    My family never voted in a Pakistani election. We know that our vote is worthless as the army always had the final say. No matter which party had won the elections the army made sure it failed and did not complete its term. Once the democracy is established and several govts complete their terms only and only after that we can compare Pakistan with other democracies.


  • JS
    Mar 30, 2012 - 10:59AM

    My solution to the inherently flawed (on many levels) voting system of Pakistan is to make voting compulsory for all citizens of the country. As is the case in many countries around the world including Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Singapore. This way a politician’s/party’s base will continue to vote for them (as they are currently doing), but now the same politician will need to win over the others as well. Currently there is only politics of party and you only have to ensure more of your base votes than the opposing base. This will also bring all our political extremes towards the center since they will need appeal to the majority of the voters instead of their own particular base.


  • The real conundrum
    Mar 30, 2012 - 1:09PM

    Who does one vote for? I don’t want any party which is standing for the upcoming elections to come into power. This is the question/ confusion/ lack of viable options which is another great barrier refraining people from voting


  • Abbas from the US
    Mar 30, 2012 - 5:58PM

    Very interesting analysis.

    I would go back even further to 1969 the first ever election based on free adult franchise, of one man or woman one vote in Pakistan. Before that we had two flawed elections (1960 and 1964) using an experiment in indirect elections called Basic Democracy was used. An electoral college of 80,000 eventually expanded to 120,000 would be voters for the Presidential election were elected by the general electorate. This made easy for Ayub Khan and the army to purchase a minimum of 40,001 Basic Democrats to win and seal the election. Even than the outcome of the 1964 elections In which the opposition candidate was Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah suggested irregularities.

    In 1969 the percentage of voter turnout for both the East and West wings of the country than, had a voter turnout at about 32% and since the credible figures are not available to me we could safely assume that the average voter turnout would have been higher in East Pakistan or what eventually became Bangladesh, for the very reason that the Bengali Pakistani was politically more conscious, and more apt to vote with his pocket book in mind, as compared to the West Pakistani voter more susceptible to being swayed by religious slogans. Even Bhutto had to create Islamic socialism to remind the West wing voter of the religiouus motive diluted by the economic motive.

    The inference that can be concluded is also that when the Pakistani voter is convinced that his vote will have an impact even if slight the voter will express his right to vote.

    It is the absence of a functioning democracy held hostage by the arrmy, it is not unreasonable for the voter to demonstrate apathy towards the politcal outcome of the elctroal process. As democracy takes hold voter turnout will expectedly increase towards the better.


  • Sarah
    Mar 30, 2012 - 9:18PM

    Voting should become obligatory for all citizens of the state.


  • Hafeez
    Mar 30, 2012 - 9:22PM

    I don’t know about the world average. But I guess it would be feasible to compare it to the non-OECD countries’ average.


  • Salman Zafar
    Mar 30, 2012 - 9:28PM

    Will vote for the first time for PTI.. InshAllah….



  • Tamoor
    Mar 30, 2012 - 9:39PM

    Vote for PTI …


  • Khan
    Mar 30, 2012 - 10:09PM

    @ Ibrahim
    A good read ! I will certainly replace my present stance of “basic education for a better Pakistan” with “quality education for a better Pakistan”. However, I would like to see some stats for your research as it seems quite plausible in theory but lacks the “punch” with it.


  • Optimist
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:19PM

    Why not make voting compulsory for ALL healthy adults between the ages of 18 – 55?
    Those who don’t vote are fined 10 lakh rupees or 6 months imprisonment?


  • usman zubair
    May 5, 2012 - 1:49PM

    All that matters at end is Public Participation and to drive it a literate have to take on responsibility voluntarily to mobilize those who either fall in low per capita income or living posh arban life.


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