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Let’s stop wasting our votes

Sughra is the typical new voter. On May 11, 2013, she joined the frenzied millions across the country who were voting for the first time. Laden with dupattas in PTI’s signature red and green colours, she braved the sweltering heat and long queues to vote in NA-122, one of the three dozen hotly contested constituencies between PML-N and PTI.

Needless to say, she must have felt the ultimate sense of defeat at the realization that when all the votes were tallied, her ballot had made no difference whatsoever. It was “wasted”.

She wasn’t alone, over 60% of the electorate voted for a losing candidate in their constituencies. About 17% of the electorate voted for PTI, but found their representation reduced to just 10% in parliament. The opposite was true for PMLN, which polled 33% of the vote, but was off of eking out a majority by a whisker. Unfair? I thought so too.

This sense of defeat isn’t new for Pakistani voters. The results of 1990 election look like our recent 3-0-cricket rout at the hands of the Bangladeshi team in a table. Where PPP and IJI both bagged a 38% share of the vote, PPP ended up with only 44 seats compared to IJI’s 106.

Such discrepancies in vote share and representation in parliament are the result of the notorious First-Past-The-Post System (FPTP) that Pakistan employs. The system disproportionately rewards the victors, and roundly punishes the vanquished.

In Pakistan’s context, the FPTP has resulted in a phenomenon that concerns me more than the under representation of the opposition, the incentives of having a concentrated vote bank. This has made it convenient for parties to foster nationalist tendencies instead of expanding geographically. PMLN has used this phenomenon to its advantage, in often desperate ways (Recall the “Jaag Punjabi Jaag, teri lath gai paag” – “Wake up O Punjabi, your honor is threatened” slogan used by the IJI, which later became PMLN, against the Sindhi Benazir Bhutto in the 1988 election campaign).

This has fragmented us politically along regional lines, and it has made it disadvantageous to be a party with a national appeal. The consistent incapacity of the PPP, once Pakistan’s sole national political force, to convert votes as efficiently into seats as other parties verifies this.

One doesn’t need to be a political expert to reach the conclusion that the FPTP fuels many of the ills in our political system. The fact that 272 constituencies have individual races cements the entrenchment of the baradri system in rural Pakistan, where elections are reduced to mere local contests between baradris and policies take the backstage.

The obvious alternative to the FPTP is the Proportional Representation (PR) system, where voters vote for parties instead of candidates and in essence, the entire country is a single constituency, thus explaining why these countries tend to be devoid of local electoral battles. The proportion of seats awarded to a party is the proportion of votes it polls nationally.

Sounds fair, doesn’t it? All of this increases voter focus on party policies, which results in political vibrancy, as parties adapt distinct political platforms to attract voters. This is in contrast to the quasi-centrist platforms of mainstream Pakistani parties.

Coming back to the ills I was referring to, the institution of a PR system would reduce the need of politicians who use their muscle power to pull out voters, instead, parties will need to nominate candidates that are capable of articulating party policies. Additionally, electoral calculus shifts sharply against regional parties in PR systems, which would force regional parties to expand geographically, or face political irrelevance. Overly optimistic? Perhaps, but any measure of shift away from traditional politics is appreciable.

For me, the issue is about an intrinsic sense of fairness; how can a system that allows a party to rule with only a third of the electorate’s support have any semblance of fairness?

Out of interest, I did some number crunching to see what the 2013 election results would look like under a PR system of the kind used in Turkey or Germany. 2013 Election Results on our current Electoral system were: PMLN, 126; PPP, 33; PTI, 28; Others/Independents, 85. 2013 Election Results based on a PR model would have been: PMLN, 86; PPP, 46; PTI, 45; Others/Independents, 95.

I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

The political discourse over the past two years has been dominated by calls for electoral reform. Long overdue. Thank God. However, what alarms me is that none of our so-called think tanks, political pundits or Election system tabdili torchbearers have come out against this rotten electoral system, which stacks the odds in favor of certain parties and has consistently disenfranchised millions of voters. It’s high time Pakistan opts for a more democratic and modern electoral system. I know Sughra would back it.

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