After dilly-dallying for eight long years, the provincial governments of the country have ultimately undertaken the massive exercise of the local government (LG) polls. After Balochistan and KP, Punjab and Sindh are holding these polls in phases – in the first phase polls were held on October 31 – where monitors and observers registered several new trends.
One startling fact that came to light was that not a single woman turned up to vote in Union Council 67 (Ward 1 to 4) of Dharnal village in Talagang tehsil of Chakwal district in Punjab. In the past, such news would come from the conservative North but this election in the heart of Punjab is a real eye-opener.
According to some reports, the elders of the area had decided in the 1960s not to allow their women to cast votes in elections. As the story goes, there was a quarrel over women who had come out of their homes to fulfill this constitutional obligation. This decision was strictly adhered to this time too and no political party objected to it.
But what has perturbed many is that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has refrained from questioning the legitimacy of LG polls in the concerned union council.
“There is not much development even after the submission of an application with the ECP in this regard,” says Ali Hasnain, 24, a resident of Dharnal and a student of accountancy. He says that on the day of elections, he called the commission and told them about this discrepancy. He approached the monitoring team of Pothohar Organisation for Development and Advocacy (PODA) — a civil society organisation working in Chakwal since 2003 — and took them to the polling stations where women polling staff was sitting idle. There were long queues of men but none of women despite their votes being registered.
Hasnain adds that the PODA team recorded the scene at the polling stations and filed an application with the ECP on November 3, requesting it to declare the election null and void. He faced severe criticism from his community in the 2013 general elections when he had brought eight women to the polling stations. This time he could not bring a single woman to the polling station to vote.
Zubair Ahmed, Programme Manager PODA, says that when his team questioned the local community on why they had denied the right of franchise to their women, they were told the locals were convinced they did not have the right to challenge what their elders had decided.
Ahmed says they have sought remedial action from the ECP on different grounds. For example, Section 50 of the Punjab Local Government Act 2013 talks about “Undue influence” and states: “A person is guilty of undue influence, if he– (a) in order to compel any person to vote, refrain from voting, or to induce or compel any person to withdraw his candidature at an election, directly or indirectly, by himself or by any other person on his behalf: (i) makes or threatens to make use of any force, violence or restraint; (ii) inflicts or threatens to inflict any injury, damage, harm or loss…”
In this section, ‘harm’ includes social ostracism or excommunication or expulsion from any caste or community.
Besides, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW), to which Pakistan is a signatory, strongly prohibit such practices, he says.
He adds they are hopeful, as there is a precedent where the ECP announced re-election in PK 95, a provincial constituency in KP, for the same reason. None of the around 53,000 women voters in the constituency had voted in the by-election held on May 7, 2015 for the seat falling vacant because of resignation of Jamaat-i-Islami Chief Sirajul Haq. “That’s another thing that the Peshawar High Court (PHC) set aside the decision after hearing the appeal against the decision,” he says.
Fauzia Viqar, Chairperson, Punjab Commission on Status of Women (PCSW) says she sent a complaint regarding this issue to the ECP on the very next day of the elections and is awaiting progress on it. The PCSW, she says, has asked the ECP to simply declare the election in UC 67 null and void.
Viqar agrees this was an irregularity and they are ensuring it does not happen again.
She visited Kabirwala tehsil in Khanewal district on similar complaints and met the assistant commissioner and the district election commissioner as well. Meetings were also arranged with locals where they were asked to give an undertaking that they will not stop their women from voting in the second phase of LG polls, she adds.
Khurshid Alam, Deputy Director ECP, confirms the commission has received the application which they will address accordingly. For the time being, he says, they are over-occupied with work and handling complaints about election irregularities and recounting of votes. Besides, he adds, there is extra work related to the second phase of LG polls.
Alam says the ECP took suo motu notice in case of Lower Dir elections on the basis of media reports and ordered re-elections there. It can pass a similar order provided they find enough evidence to establish that the women in Dharnal were influenced and stopped from voting. On the proposed legislation about re-election in constituencies with less than 10 per cent turnout of women voters, he says, this law could not be passed as Balochistan MNAs strongly opposed it “for clashing with their cultural values”.
One can hope there is enough evidence this time to help the ECP announce an irreversible decision. In the case of Lower Dir, the counsel of the returning candidate had alleged that the complaint was filed by some women belonging to NGOs from Islamabad who were not the aggrieved party. It was also asserted that the women of the area had refrained from voting of their own free will and there was no pressure on them from any side.