It’s a fascinating and somewhat baffling study of human psychology to observe an election in a village in Sindh. Let’s first look at the backdrop in which recent local government elections took place in some districts in the province. Villages across these areas present a uniformly bleak and despondent picture. Sewerage lines are overflowing onto pot-holed roads, empty plots are all garbage dumps and lanes are littered with buffalo dung and leftover hay. Crowds of men are idly gathered at the village tea-shop, barefoot children play at the edge of a sewage drain and women pat dung cakes onto the walls of their mud-houses to use as cooking fuel. Government schools are empty and depressing, the local health unit has scant medication in stock and electricity runs, at best, for an hour or so a couple of times a day.
In these stark surroundings, when election candidates head out door to door to ask for votes, most villagers politely acquiesce but behind their backs they scoff and vent. Their chief complaints: “These people don’t even let us cross their doorways most of the time. They loathe shaking hands with us. And today look how they’re out offering hugs and the promise of government jobs. They’ll never be seen again after election day.”
Observing these responses felt encouraging. It seemed people had developed a sense of the political game and would soon get to the point where they choose wisely and use the precious gift of a vote thoughtfully for the greater benefit of their communities.
As the days neared though, this extrapolation fell to doubt. Most people were excitedly talking about the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and its unshakable victory-to-be.
On election day itself, villages were buzzing with activity. Women, otherwise only occasionally seen outside the house, were out in droves. Men were milling at voting centres all day. And election candidates were handing out cauldrons of cooked rice to entice voters into supporting them.
That day, a rough survey of voters revealed four major voting patterns that led to ultimate victory for the PPP.
The first, and most common, was the view that ‘there’s no other choice’. Voters revealed the self-fulfilling prophecy that no other candidate would win anyway and therefore it made more sense to vote for the PPP. These voters believed other candidates would get just a few votes and in any case weren’t formidable enough in name or performance record to make people consider not voting for the PPP. The counter-argument, that choices are created by changing voting habits, fell on blank expressions.
The second trend was ‘our elders have always voted for the PPP and so have we and so will our children’. When gently shown that elected representatives have the biggest hand in the miserable poverty your elders lived in that afflicts you and will destroy your children, voters just shrugged.
The third was ‘we’re voting for Benazir Bhutto because she’s our ideal personality’. This answer came from women — young and old, educated and illiterate. Benazir isn’t alive anymore and her personality cannot help change your lives or your futures? The response: ‘We owe it to her.’
Related was the response that our vote is for the PPP because of the cash handouts being received under the Benazir Income Support Programme. Let alone the fact that this is crippling you further into dependence and creating an entirely new class of beggars? ‘Money is coming in for now.’
The fourth and perhaps most disturbing trend: the village landlord is standing in the election, it’s a question of the honour of the entire village. Has this landlord ever helped build village infrastructure or improve the lives of your families through the provision of very basic needs such as shelter, water and toilets? No, true, he hasn’t but nevertheless, our honour is at stake.
These trends are simply despairing. In its latest stint, leaving aside previous history, the PPP has ruled in Sindh since 2008. In these years, the decay in villages is more than apparent. The state of government education has sharply declined, patients from rural areas throng government hospitals in cities struggling for the most basic form of healthcare and village infrastructure has crumbled and collapsed. Rural youth remain disillusioned with both education — that doesn’t get them jobs — and with village life where opportunities aren’t provided. Men remain trapped in the mire of income generation, unable to find enough opportunities to put food on the table. Women are still losing their lives in childbirth and children are still dying of something as basic as diarrhoea.
No one knows all this better than the residents of villages across Sindh. They struggle day in and day out to make a living, send their children to school and find some way to receive healthcare for their families. Why, then, would they vote the way they do? And what could be more frustrating and worrying than this? This being as it is, we as communities, must assume an important role of emergency awareness building.
Our villagers — literate or not — must be taken through the entire parliamentary system: how it works, who does what and how much power and influence elected politicians wield. Since the population is already far more politically aware than in many other countries, this will automatically be an easier task. Then, the performance of political parties over extended periods of times, with details that are relevant to village life, should be presented to people and discussed at length. Last, the value of the vote must be exhorted too. This political training must take place in our classrooms so children learn at an early age about the responsibilities of the voter. It must concurrently take place in village communities where the youth, men and women are given awareness training. Additionally, the relevance of public projects to family life — whether in terms of schools, hospitals, roads or sanitation systems — must be made clear to the people who vote.
If nothing else, this repeated message will give at least some voters reason to pause when they cast their next ballot. And maybe some of them will vote in favour of their own future.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21th, 2015.
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