ISLAMABAD: There is no escape from politics in the federal capital. Living next to the corridors of power, one would expect residents to be fed up with political activity. But the election season has gotten everyone buzzing about constituency politics, undelivered promises and voting.
Hameed Kayani, a cab driver who will be voting in Islamabad’s NA-49, was incensed at the thought of low turnouts at polling stations on election day.
“Think of your vote as a punishment for candidates and parties who did not deliver on their past promises. Cast your vote against them so that they realise their mistakes, but don’t abstain,” said Kayani.
His views are substantiated by past polling day statistics. In 2002, 51 per cent of Islamabad’s voters cast their ballots and in 2008, the capital had the highest voter turnout percentage in Pakistan.
A little over half of the city’s 482,801 registered voters — 50.01 per cent to be exact — cast their ballots in the previous election.
Centre for Civic Education Executive Director Zafarullah Khan said Islamabad had relatively high voter turnout figures because the city’s electorate is comparatively well-educated and has access to adequate means of transport.
“Voters are educated and have their own transport, and villages on the outskirts are not very big,” Khan said. “We have cohesive communities, so people do not have to travel too far to cast their ballots.”
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the number of registered voters in Islamabad has increased by 30 per cent to 629,233 for this year’s election. The new voters include at least 117,892 youth between the ages of 18 to 25.
The ECP has announced that there will be 550 polling stations across Islamabad’s two constituencies.
The real challenge, however, lies in countering security threats. Bomb blasts have rocked campaigns in Karachi and several cities in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, killing and injuring political workers and candidates.
“The law and order situation will be a major deterrent for citizens, who may avoid voting in some areas of Pakistan,” Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency Executive Director Ahmed Bilal Mehboob said. “If there is no untoward incident in Islamabad, I expect voter turnout to be the same or higher than 2008.”
The number of candidates in the capital will also play a part in voter turnout for 2013. A whopping 77 candidates are contesting for two National Assembly seats, with 51 vying for one constituency alone.
“NA-48 has probably the most number of candidates for a single constituency across the country, so these candidates are obviously going to mobilise their voters to go and vote on Election Day,” Khan said.
After the Supreme Court voted in favour of a Workers Party Pakistan’s petition calling for electoral reforms, the ECP had issued a directive to prevent candidates from ferrying voters to polling stations.
Transport is a major expenditure for voters. Richer candidates have an unfair advantage over their less privileged rivals in elections because they are allowed to move voters from their homes to the polling booths.
But there is a lacuna in The Representation of the People Act 1976 — the election law which contains a transport-curtailing provision.
“Candidates are not allowed to provide transport for their voters, but political parties can,” Khan said. “The budgetary restrictions do not apply to the parties.”
“Voter transportation has become a culture. Voters, especially in rural areas, expect candidates to provide pick-and-drop services during elections,” he added.
Mehboob said that while candidates may be a little cautious this time around, they would not avoid the practice altogether.
Nevertheless, Khan opined that a public service campaign in across the country should be launched to provide pooled transport for women and persons with disabilities to ensure that their voices are heard.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2013.