While the new government has started functioning, there are still some electoral contests left. These include by-polls on seats vacated by members elected on multiple seats, contests in constituencies where elections had been postponed and the re-election in provincial assembly constituency PK 23 in Shangla I, KP due to low turnout of women voters. Though these polls are not likely to affect the number game much, a lot of public interest exists in their outcome. Besides, the contestants are taking these elections very seriously and striving to get results in their favour.
Of these, the re-election in PK 23 is scheduled to be held on September 10, barely a week later. Here Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) candidate Shaukat Yousufzai had returned successful by securing 17,399 votes, but the turnout rate of women voters was extremely low: only 3,505 women cast their votes in this constituency. This was hardly 5 percent of the total 69,827 votes. What followed was that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) held back the notification of victory of the winning candidate, declared the election results null and void and announced a new date of re-election.
The reason behind this decision was simple; the votes cast by women were less than 10 per cent of the total votes polled in this constituency. It was in accordance with The Election Act, 2017 that requires the ECP to declare an election null and void if women’s votes are less than 10 percent of the total votes polled in that constituency. In such a situation, “the commission may presume that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes and may declare, polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency, void.”
The situation in PK 23 is such that the candidates are going door to door to convince men to bring women to the polling stations on poll day. They are also pressurizing the ECP to minimize the number of joint polling stations where booths for both men and women voters are set up. They claim this was one major reason why women were reluctant to come out of their homes to vote. Interestingly, both the winning and losing candidates are charged because the margin of victory was hardly 1866 votes. Their focus is mainly on the women voters in the voter list who did not cast their vote on July 25. PMLN leader Ameer Muqam is spearheading the election campaign and is hopeful of reversing the result.
No doubt the concerned clause has been included in the Election Act 2017 to increase the participation of women in the electoral process but critics believe there are still some loopholes that need to be plugged. For example, the requirement is that the total number of women’s votes shall be 10 per cent or more of the total votes polled in the whole constituency, but this does not take into account individual polling stations. There could be zero percent turnout in certain stations but as long as the total comes out to be above 10%, the results are accepted.
The Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) Chairperson Fauzia Viqar says this point was raised before the elections at different forums, but at that point there was not much time left for further legislation. She hopes this aspect will be covered by the legislators in the new set up. It is important because many a time women have been barred from voting at polling station level only, she adds.
Initially, there were reports that there were other constituencies as well where the women voters’ turnout rate was less than 10 per cent but eventually the ECP ordered re-election in only one constituency-PK 23. The other constituencies included NA 10 in KP and NA 48 in FATA where this rate was less than but close to 10 per cent. This perturbed the winning candidate in Shangla who challenged the decision saying why re-election was not ordered in other constituencies.
The ECP Spokesman Altaf Ahmed explains the situation. He tells TNS that the women’s vote percentage was 9.8 per cent and 9.95 per cent of the total polled votes in NA 10 and NA 48. As these were close to the round figure of 10 per cent these were considered to be within the threshold and re-election was ordered only in PK 23 where this percentage is 5 per cent. Ahmed denies charge of a selective decision taken by ECP and says it has simply abided by the law.
The ECP decision to hold re-election in PK 23 has sent a message to people that it will be difficult to bar women from voting activity in their respective areas. Previously, in many areas the elders and influentials would enter agreements not allowing their women to come to polling stations to vote, terming it contrary to their traditions, culture and code of honour. However, there is still a lot more to be done including gradual increase in this threshold of 10 per cent.
Saima Munir, an election observer in KP and staff member of Aurat Foundation in Peshawar, tells TNS that there were complaints about setting up of joint polling stations and fights among rivals but says the real reasons behind low turnout need to be probed. She says there were joint polling stations in Chitral as well but there the turnout ratio of women was 61 per cent. “May be the locals including the candidates were not aware of the importance of women’s vote and that’s why they didn’t focus on them.”
It is also a fact that the disparity in the number of male and female registered voters in a constituency can also be a cause for low turnout of women voters. For example, NA-48 that closely survived a re-election due to low women turnout, has 274,205 registered voters of which 77,537 (28.27 pc) are women and 196,668 (71.72pc) men. This automatically translates into low turnout of women voters.
So, it is clear that the upcoming re-election is a test case for all involved and its result will have a significant impact on the efforts to enhance women’s participation in the electoral process. The women who come out to vote this time will definitely set the future course for others.