Is there a case for compulsory voting in Pakistan? As the next general elections draw nearer, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) should consider measures for strengthening the electoral process such that it contributes to more effective functioning of the state. Introducing a compulsory voting law provides one such opportunity; the timing for such an effort could not be better. Public participation in policy formulation is implicit in the concept of democracy and voting is one of its most — if not the most — important aspect. A look at voting trends in south Asia reveals that Pakistan lags behind all other countries in this area. Consider, for instance, voter turnout rates in the region in the most recent parliamentary elections in each country: Bangladesh 85 per cent (2008), Maldives 79 per cent (2009), Bhutan 79 per cent (2008), Nepal 63 per cent (2008), Sri Lanka 61 per cent (2010) and India 58 per cent (2009). Even Afghanistan with a voter turnout of 46 per cent (2010) has fared better than Pakistan, which had a 45 per cent rate (2008). While it is the fundamental right of the people to elect the right leadership, it is also an obligation to public welfare that they must uphold. And it must be taken more seriously by both the governed and those who govern. The experience of advanced democratic societies suggests that greater public participation in political processes encourages them to effectively create the demands and pressures on the state to provide necessary goods and services; and to hold it accountable to the social contract. The system is tried and tested and it works.
Compulsory voting is not a novel idea. It is exercised in several countries, including Argentina, Australia, Philippines, Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, Italy, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and several others. In some of these countries, the law is enforced with administrative sanctions against violators, such as prohibition to issue a passport, a driver’s license or an occupational license. Some states levy monetary fines against non-voters and sometimes remove their names from voter lists. Imposing such enforcement mechanisms, however, present challenges in implementation that may not be context-appropriate for Pakistan. However, it is important to note that there are countries where penalties for non-compliance are stipulated by law but are not strictly enforced. Yet, their voting laws, albeit symbolic in nature, still carry an effect on people in terms of creating greater societal awareness regarding their rights and responsibilities towards public good and consequently, increase the levels of voter participation.
Opponents of compulsory voting argue that it complicates the election process with the greater likelihood of blank, multiple and invalid voting. These are issues the ECP and NADRA should anticipate and plan for if such a law is introduced in Pakistan. There are lessons to be learned from the experiences of countries where voting is compulsory. Pakistan could do well to draw upon their insights and emulate their best practices. Australia provides a compelling model where voting has been mandatory for nearly a century. The practice was enforced in 1924, immediately demonstrating a significant impact with a 32 per cent increase in voter turnout. Thus, voter turnout in Australia increased from 59 per cent in the 1922 elections prior to the introduction of the law, and thereafter to 91 per cent in the 1925 elections.
In Pakistan, voter participation has not moved in tandem with its democratic trajectory, showing a negligible increase of three per cent between election years 2002 to 2008, from 42 per cent to 45 per cent. Surely, Pakistan could do better. But would it in the next elections? Realistically speaking, it is quite unlikely that voter turnout in Pakistan will increase significantly without a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of key state institutions to make this possible. The fact that over half of Pakistan’s registered voters do not cast their vote does not bode well for its democratic aspirations. Democracy, after all, is government by the people, at least a majority, if not all of them. The electoral results should be representative of their will. The government must, therefore, take concrete measures to bridge the gap between voters and non-voters, even if it means going the extra mile. Making voting compulsory prior to the next elections is necessary and critical for Pakistan for a smoother and meaningful democratic transition. Evidence suggests that policies formulated by governments have greater legitimacy when higher numbers of people participate in electing them. It would clearly place Pakistan’s democratically elected leadership on surer footing and a steadier path. On another note, as Pakistan continues to navigate an increasingly competitive and challenging economic and political global landscape, a more robust democratic image would serve its interests well.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2012.
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Your idea for mandatory voting is good. But it is very difficult to practice now. I think that continuity of democracy, end of terrorism and change in the medieval mindset is necessary for the increase of peoples participation in elections. Live with love-Let democracy work
Good idea but it may not work in Pakistan because the state lacks the resources to provide basic necessities like 'compulsory' food, health, education, electricity and justice to its citizens. As pointed out by some commentators, in tribal areas women folk are not allowed to vote by the male members. So half of the population in certain areas is already disenfranchised. Good idea nonetheless. I hope it becomes a reality one day. Perhaps in my lifetime.
The article by Dr Saira Yamin certainly needs to be thought over and be implied , but how in our country will it be promulgated . It is a task which needs lot of thinking and lot of doing . Those at the helm of affair are definitely not interested because it will be against their interests . And further more all the blanks will be filled by those who have been always doing this , whether the actual voter turns up or not . What is needed is that bogus voting must be stopped at all cost . We should find out a method to make this fair practice possible . How can it be done the new chief election commissioner who is an honest man may find a way . Dr Hamid Maqsood . Nottingham UK.
I think it is very good idea,to get a more robust in the country. However I think ruling party won't like it for obvious reasons and therefore chances of this idea materializing is negligible.
I think it is a very good idea.Of course it will have to be matched by measures to facilitate and make it logistically easy for all sections of society.I know however ruling party will be against it for obvious reasons and therefore chances of this idea materializing is negligible.
I think we should encourage voters to vote freely in all elections, In Pakistan case people are either scared to go to booths or just think its a waste of time. Reason behind this attitude we all know about, Politicians has lost all the credibility to appeal masses, only people vote at present only because of biradri system or for some freebies from candidates on the day. Most of them dont know the real power a vote can have on democracy. Instead of just asking people to vote, it would be far better if they are made aware of voting and its results, and how it impact them.
Most people beleive, anyone win or loose, this doesnt impact their lives so why vote? Because politcians are failed to deliver or make lives of masses even a little bit better.
Before we can go for compulsary voting, we need to make sure everyone has chance to vote nearby. We cant expect people to vote when polling stations are not accessible by little walk down to polling station.
Idea is not bad and compulsary voting can bring real change, people with less than 50% votes should go for next round.
The argument is valid and compulsory voting is the need of the hour. But the problem is that the government and the key institutions responsible for implementing such measure have vested interests in not doing so. The current government is eager to eliminate as much people as possible from the voter bank by introducing unreasonable deadlines and beaurucratic processes to deter people away from voting. In this kind of a tragic situation, the writer must also present alternative ways to introduce compulsory voting instead of beseeching the government for doing so.
@Mirza: My first tendency is to agree with you - compulsory and democracy aren't words that sit together well. However, there are certain attractions in the idea (at least from an Indian perspective); In India the rural turnout is much higher than the urban one because the urban voter (especially in the upper-middle class and above) cannot identify with the candidate and sees no great power in his ballot although he/ she may sing paens in glory of democracy (and/ or is too damn lazy). It is quite easy to include a 'no candidate' option on the ballot/ EVM for people who are disappointed with the entire list of candidates - this information would actually be valuable feedback to the parties involved. The advantage here is that it will require a shift both in campaign rhetoric and focus on issues that count because the middle class is highly vocal, can easily become dissatisfied (caste-based loyalties are less important relatively), and are usually tired of the accusatory politics that goes on throughout the year on their doorsteps. There could be points against this idea, but it may just get my vote :).
A very good and workable idea. Criticism is uncalled for. We must introduce compulsory voting along with runoff elections system in the upcoming general elections to get some positive results. Otherwise it will be an exercise in futility as always. Elections may be delayed for a year to ensure these and other reforms.
Compulsory voting...?? nonsense...!! please do not create more problems for common man. Don't we know how compulsory voting laws will be used in elections? Not opting to vote is also a way to express opinion... that is "no trust in democracy and on politicians"
I'm from India and we too, from time to time, come across that question of compulsory voting. No doubt people need to exercise this precious right, but only if the candidates that they are to elect are clean and honest. Now that is a tall order in asking! If most of the politicians are corrupt and dishonest, whom do I vote for? Also, there no right to recall/reject vote and this creates all the more trouble. The situation then is, I have to vote irrespective of who the candidate is but have no right to recall/reject. Imagine a situation where there are five candidates of five different parties in my area and four of them are corrupt. So I vote for the candidate who is honest. If the same party's candidates in other areas are corrupt and some other party's candidate is honest, a voter there would vote for that honest person. On a large scale this translates into the votes getting divided haphazardly, with no clear winner. This would undoubtedly encourage corruption even more, what with politicians buying up candidates. Is this the system that is needed? It's like asking one to choose between the devil and the deep sea, and I'm better off with the devil now.
Compulsory voting will not work. It is very difficult to enforce. The only thing that the government can do is to provide security and transportation to the polling booths. Voters are either disgruntled or scared to go out and vote.
Mandatory voting is only going to help urban elite who have all the facilities, conveniences and time. It is not going to help rural voters living in harsh conditions and away from cities and towns. There is already very high polling in the urban centers of Pakistan, the problem is with the backward rural areas. Provide them all the facilities of large cities and the polling % would increase. There was another demand of proportional representation, so that the parties of urban areas do even better than the parties in Baluchistan, KPK, FATA and other rural regions only because of high polling in urban centers.
There is no good case for forcing voting. It's the candidate's job to get out, interact and compel the people they want to vote for them, to go vote for them. You're just enabling further laziness.
Dr. Saira! excellent and workable suggestion though there will be chllenges at the initial stage. As the democarcy flourishes, the rule of compulsory voting will take its roots automatically. I think, in the coming elections, while making voting compulsory the government may offer some incentives for the voters such as some concessions from the coming bills of electricity, gas, water etc.
Compulsory voting can work very well but only when the balloting is secret and people are assured that their votes are counted properly.
The low turnout in Pakistan is mainly due to the women kept in the house and not allowed to go and use their free will. When the SC and authorities could not produce a few women in the court from Kohistan how can we force them all to vote? In addition in large backward areas like Baluchistan and KPK where the voters have to travel long distances to vote, we cannot expect them all to come out and vote. In addition some do not vote like I never did in Pakistani elections nor did my family. We know it would be the generals who would decide the elections or the next govt's term then what is the use of wasting time and energy? Looking at these limiting factors it is amazing that our voting % is not much below the US and India, the two largest democracies in the world. The voting cannot be made mandatory, it would be a kind of dictatorship and forced to choose even if one does not like any of them. Who is going to provide free transport in the rural areas to old, sick and women observing parda? Computer use is a good idea only for people who are computer literate, not for one day in five years! We have to educate people and teach their civic rights and responsibilities to improve their participation. There is one silver bullet to increase voter participation. There has to be a few elections one after the other to make people feel empowered not the generals and judges overthrowing the elected govt every time. Last but not the least irrespective of turnout there should not be any attempt to delegitimize the elected govt.
Compulsory voting is all well and good, but we live a country where the rich and the supposedly educated, poo poo, there fellow countrymen, calling them "illiterate animals who have no idea what's best for them!". When those in power and influence can influence state policy by cozying up with generals, judges, civil servants, industrialists...they dont want to have to deal with the nascences of "the common man" making there own decisions. For the rich, its one man, one vote, accept they think they know whats in the best interest of everyone.
You make a good case, Dr. Yamin, but as none of the laws of this country are ever enforced, implementation of mandatory voting would never be possible. Can’t put millions of voters in jail can we :) Have faith, change is in the air. I have a feeling the next election will have the highest turnout that we have seen in decades. I, for one, will vote for the first time in my life.