Balochistan: bad blood, worse ballot
BALOCHISTAN has listed fewer voters today than it had 15 years ago. Those left out are not missing from their homes nor have they opted to forego their basic political right.
They have simply not been enrolled in the voter lists that will be used in the coming elections. Numerous cases of Balochistan’s missing persons in recent years have worsened relations between the centre and the province which have never been rosy.
The case of the missing voters, however, will lead the situation to further despair as it makes it evident that no democratic and non-violent solution to the continued saga is on the horizon.
Voters in Pakistan are on the increase. The 1998 census had counted 66 million persons aged 18 years or above in the country and the recent draft electoral rolls have listed 81 million voters that also have the same age as eligibility criteria.
The adult population or eligible voters thus have increased by 22 per cent in the past 15 years which sounds reasonable. The breakup of figures, however, reveals some disturbing facts, most importantly in relation to Balochistan.
The province had three million voters in 1997 when the voters’ age limit was set at 21 years. As it was lowered to 18 years by the next elections held in 2002, the province added about a million more voters and this tallied with the adult population figure generated by the census. The number of voters in Balochistan stood at 4.4 million in the now highly controversial lists used in the 2008 elections. In the recently published draft electoral rolls it has fallen to three million — 3,004,464 to be exact.
The decline cannot be explained away by blaming the previous voter registration exercises as erroneous which now supposedly stand corrected thanks to the high-tech wizardry of Nadra. The current figure is almost 200,000 less than even the adult population documented in past censuses. Beyond doubt a large number of adult persons in Balochistan will not be able to exercise their basic political right in the coming elections.
Besides voter lists, other aspects of the election administration too face unique challenges in Balochistan for a variety of reasons. The province is a little bigger in area than Punjab and Sindh put together while it has just 14 of the 272 general seats in the National Assembly. This translates into an average constituency size of 25,000 sq km while the same for the rest of the country is less than 200 sq km.
This in turn leads to a voter density of just nine per square kilometre compared with 175 for the rest of the country. A polling station in Balochistan covers on average an area of 100 sq km while the number stands at five for Punjab, nine for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 11 sq km for Sindh. Add to this the low road density and the rugged terrain and even simple electoral chores become a strenuous exercises.
Geography, however, is something that you do not choose and if it poses some problems one has to devise ways to overcome and solve these and that needs political will and resolve. Erroneous voter lists and a weak electoral administration are a test of that will.
It can be said that Balochistan is no exception as elections in Pakistan have generally not been fair or free. The recent hearings in the Supreme Court of the case concerning the involvement of the security establishment in masterminding the 1990 elections can be cited as an example.
Nevertheless, one also cannot ignore the fact that there have been improvements over the past decade. For example, the 2002 elections did not prove to be a cakewalk for the so-called King’s party despite the fact that these were held under the direct supervision of a military government while an army general occupied the office of president.
But similar signs are nowhere on horizon in Balochistan. Consider for example the previous elections. Nationalist parties boycotted the 2008 elections protesting against the highhandedness of Gen Musharraf; the voter turnout, however, showed a marginal increase of 1.3 percentage points (over 2002) implying that the electors had not heeded the call for a boycott.
But the only urban and thus densely populated constituency of Quetta showed a sharp decline in turnout falling from 24.3 to 17.1 per cent. On the other hand, four of the most sparsely populated and remote constituencies with absolutely no media coverage showed a phenomenal rise of 10 percentage points in turnout. This neutralised the overall turnout figure which implied that the province’s situation is as good or as bad as ever.
In 2008, 190,000 more votes were polled in the province compared with the previous elections and of these new votes 60,000 were cast in just one of the 14 constituencies, NA 263 Loralai. In this constituency, 174 voters exercised their right in 2008 compared with 100 in 2002 which is not tenable by any stretch of the imagination.
In NA 265, however, 43,000 fewer voters appeared in polling stations than had in 2002 and in NA 262, considered the hub of Pakhtun nationalists of Balochistan, who had also boycotted the elections, the turnout remained unchanged despite the fact that voter registration had risen in the constituency by a whopping 48 per cent.
These electoral stats make little sense when put together. There can be only one plausible explanation to these numbers i.e. they have been cooked up by the authorities in the province as they hardly represent political realities. This in fact might be the standard operating procedure (SOP) of the establishment for elections in the province and the current electoral rolls convey the grim message that despite all the rambling over past years the SOP for Balochistan will remain the same for the coming elections.
The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.