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.