The Significance Of Having 'None Of The Above' On The Ballot

The Significance Of Having 'None Of The Above' On The Ballot
“... the effect of isolating the electorate from the democratic process and rendering the elected government, democratic in form, but not in spirit. Such a compromise, and especially of a fundamental tenet of our Constitution must be avoided.” (Awami Workers Party)

NOTA or ‘none of the above’ must become an option on Pakistan’s fragile ballot and even more farcical democratic dispensation before the next general election. Sadly, leading up to the constitutionally mandated schedule for Pakistan’s general election, we are not living in interesting times; it is a predictable market of bidders, middlemen, and buyers. The brazen fashion in which the military establishment continues to encourage the Zardaris, Tarins, Aleems etc, of Pakistan’s electoral market to buy what is euphuistically referred to as ‘electable’ should be a tipping point for us all.

Let us understand our political landscape first.

What are these electables? Landlords or businessmen who have underprivileged citizens as their vote banks. What is the common denominator in all these men? They are unaccountable & wealthy. Where does this wealth come from?  Many of these men have untaxed wealth, from inherited agricultural lands or ‘generated’ wealth while in government, public offices or some permutation of the above.

Almost all of them own land. On those (agricultural) lands reside semi-literate or completely uneducated citizens, therefore, dependent populations - citizens of Pakistan with the ballot as their only power over any semblance of agency in their destiny. Those who work on these lands, or factories, and mills linked primarily to agricultural products till (unproductively) without any social security to speak of. They are financially dependent on these electables, but more significantly, dependent on their largess for life's daily challenges.

In the absence of an equitable or fair social environment and no rule of law to speak of, vulnerable Pakistanis require interceders and protectors, to belong to someone who can aid, for example, when they are harassed by the police, or their neighbors or from social conflicts in an ungoverned environment. All these scenarios require ‘protection’ and interceders.

Every ordinary Pakistani needs some semblance of protection to live in the Land of the Pure. This nation refuses to grow up and enter the 21st century. Where there should be strong capacitated local government and state systems, operational to protect every citizen equally, these electables choose who are protected and who is vulnerable. These electables for the most part, also choose the patwaris, the superintendents of police, district coordination officers of their liking and through those offices, manage the affairs of the area in their favor - distributing largess or fear as they choose.

The powers that be rely on this system of governance. They delegate power to manage the growing and vulnerable nation. It sounds like a 15th century model of governance, and is largely how nearly 250 million Pakistanis are managed. Through a handful of chosen representatives, our permanent powers remain supreme.

In the absence of an equitable or fair social environment and no rule of law to speak of, vulnerable Pakistanis require interceders and protectors, to belong to someone who can aid, for example, when they are harassed by the police, or their neighbors or from social conflicts in an ungoverned environment.

These electables have absolutely no interest in ‘developing’ or investing in their areas and constituencies beyond a certain point; making these vulnerable citizens independent of them would mean the end of their political power. More significantly, the end of a system which dominates and permanently rules Pakistan. There is a direct and inverse relationship between strengthening the citizen in Pakistan and the electable’s power in Pakistan’s political economy.

It is not that there has not been push back from the people or social progressive movements to alter the fate of Pakistanis. Labor movements all over the country have fought back and continue to fight, but none have managed thus far to alter the overwhelming grip over power and policy effectively-yet.

The Awami Workers Party, in 2012 pleaded a case, PLD 2012 Supreme Court 681, where their advocate Mr. Abid Hassan Minto argued ‘that existing practices and processes of electioneering and campaigning deter the ordinary citizens from partaking in the political process on account of massive use of wealth by larger and wealthier political parties, and violate their fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 17 and 25 of the Constitution. The learned counsel has placed reliance on the judgments of this Court in Ms. Benazir Bhutto v. Federation of Pakistan (PLD 1988 SC 416) and Mian  Muhammad Nawaz Sharif v. President of Pakistan (PLD 1993 SC 473) and contended that their right to form a political party includes the right to participate in free and fair election and to form government if such party is successful because 'participation' in the electioneering process necessarily implies that "every person and every group in society can genuinely take part in the process of elections, as voter and candidate, without constraint coercion and subjugation."

Secondly, a combined reading of Article 17(2) and Article 25 of the Constitution mandates a 'level playing field' for electioneering purposes. It is argued that the impugned practices, and broadly speaking, the existing political culture further negates Article 51(6)(a), which mandates that members shall be elected by a 'free', and 'fair' vote 'in accordance with the law' because these practices do not permit the vote cast to be a 'free vote', as mandated by Article 106(3)(a) either.

I have independently submitted a case to have NOTA on the ballot, after years of supporting one or two of the mainstream political parties. I did not know of the AWP 2012 case which preceded mine. I am glad to know that in pockets, there are many Pakistanis who are trying within the available democratic legal and constitutional framework to expand our rights.

In a parliamentary democracy, it is key that the institutions set up to safeguard the rights of the citizens and voter act and enact in the interests of the electorate - not a group or any other powerful lobby, against the interests of the people’s voice or will. The Election Commission of Pakistan is supposed to be an independent body and mandated to safeguard these principles. Therefore, any restrictions or exclusions of the voter’s choice or record of their sentiment must not be excluded from the tally of the vote.

The representation that citizens are accorded in our parliament are rarely operating in the citizen’s interests or their welfare. But it is also important to recognize that the electables are not quite as independent as one imagines either; they are dependent on the largess of the permanent power in Pakistan - the military establishment.

This relationship is symbiotic. To maintain control over the farce of democracy that Pakistan has, thus far, warrants pawns. Therefore, in Pakistan’s current governance model, which is only in form a representative parliamentary system, the establishment requires these men as pawns.

Why do these electables listen to the permanent powers if they have a secure vote bank? That is a very good question. The effectively disenfranchised average citizen, tied to the largess of these electables, does not genuinely support the electable. Who would support a representative whose interests do not align with their interests. Most citizens in Pakistan, especially the poor, remain under distress, overtly and de facto. What are their options in the real world? What would be the consequences if they challenge the powers that are? The ordinary citizen understands where the real power lies. The signaling from the permanent powers is a direction many will follow for personal safety.  The citizen knows it and so does the electable.

Why would the electable alter their allegiance for the welfare of their constituents when they benefit (personally) from the current alliance of power, which for some have remained over several generations. What can the people offer them?  The electable knows this. Understands this. Therefore, the permanent powers who wield genuine and tangible power signal to these vulnerable populous that ‘they are our men.’ This messaging is what binds the electable to the permanent powers and subsequently to a large extent guarantees support from their constituents. This model of power has thus far remained in a perpetual loop, with consequences that have led to the under development of large swathes of Pakistanis in every cycle.

Let’s look at the voter turnout in many of these constituencies over the past elections. The absence of women voters, and the percentage of the voter turnout aside from the efficacy of the electoral rolls. Most representatives in Pakistan enter parliament with much less than 50% of the electoral votes from their constituencies. What does that mean in terms of representation or legitimacy?

This is also one of the reasons representatives do not feel the pressure to do more for their constituents. The relationship is not elastic. The needs of the constituents are only a percentage of what brings them into power. Everyone knows it and acts accordingly. Someone wise once said, follow the money. Where do the budget lines tilt? That tells you who, and what wields power in Pakistan’s parliamentary system.

In this political landscape ‘None of the Above’ or NOTA is a tool to break this cycle of slavery. It is a step towards making a dent in Pakistan’s pathetic democratic landscape.

There is no better way to explain this than to quote Advocate Hasan Minto; ‘.. the democratic culture has not taken roots in the society due to successive disruptions in the constitutional order, and there was no cavil with the propositions qua education of voters, the measures aimed at enhancing the turn out, …the present elected representatives enjoy the confidence of the people, but they will have to work harder to perform their responsibilities which they owe towards the people.’

The electorate remains dejected with the state, but can do little with their current options. They are signaled in every which way that you as the voter, as a Pakistani citizen of a constitutionally democratic country, you have no real power over who should be that representative - so listen to what we say and do as we command.

In this political landscape ‘None of the Above’ or NOTA is a tool to break this cycle of slavery. It is a step towards making a dent in Pakistan’s pathetic democratic landscape.

Yes, I have had to listen to cackles and been dismissed for years when I speak of NOTA on our ballot as a progressive democratic weapon for the ordinary voter in Pakistan. This is not a laughing matter. As a democrat, I must find solutions within this bleakest of social environments.

How can we empower the Pakistani electorate and the individual voter, and rebalance the democratic order in favor of the citizen? Where political parties buy electables, and promise favors and opportunities of pelf in return, there is no hope of development for the 155 districts of Pakistan. We will not see any human social and physical development anytime soon within this current crop of politicians.

The acute disconnect between what is needed for 250 million Pakistanis languishing in critical poverty and those who run the business of government and policy is unsustainable. Elections in Pakistan are a constitutional requirement, but bringing back the same useless representatives should not be a burden the electorate need bare.

We need parliamentarians who care. Who will fight for clean drinking water, literacy for all and issues that matter to their electorate. We need parliamentarians who will encourage women to seek their potential in life and do not reinforce debilitating, violent and regressive cultural practices, or silencing them or their vote. We need polices in Parliament which address these foundational critical challenges for Pakistan to enter a modern phase of its destiny. We need representatives who understand and will prioritize these as national issues.

The Constitution of Pakistan provides guarantee of dignity, freedom and equality for all citizens and forbids discrimination based on sex. Article 34 demands that steps shall be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life.

In reality, women and other marginalized segments of society are barred from meaningfully participating in the election process. Women are under registered in electoral rolls, face opposition when going to vote and are often turned away from polling stations. In some constituencies, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, rival candidates and political parties entered into agreements to restrain women from casting votes. Election officials are also found being insensitive to values, e.g., polling officers insist on veiled women showing their faces for identifications to male polling staff, which discourages some women from voting. The Election Commission should ultimately be held accountable for ensuring the political participation of women.

We need parliamentarians who care. Who will fight for clean drinking water, literacy for all and issues that matter to their electorate.

In 2023, there is no justifiable explanation to have half the population in your country be illiterate. There is absolutely no justification for Larkana, Leyyeh, Jaffrabad, Dir and other places to feel like one has walked into the 10th century, while their electables are growing wealthier by the day, and enjoying the perks of representing Pakistanis at home and abroad.

When was the last time we saw a parliamentary committee or parliamentarian write a policy paper, or research on topics which matter to large segments of the populous? As one donor colleague said to me recently, your parliamentary committees ship out all the work to NGOs and donor consultants. What kind of representation is this for Pakistanis? Is this what we deserve?

In the upcoming elections, to give an opportunity to the voiceless, dejected, hopeless individual voter in Pakistan, we must provide her a choice to record her truth. She must have an opportunity to indicate what she thinks of the various candidates on offer on the ballot. She must be respected and offered a candidate that represents her needs, her hopes for a better future in her community. If such a candidate is not on the ballot, then she must have the formal option of ticking NOTA on the ballot.

In the absence of true representation on the ballot, NOTA must be an option on the electoral ballot. This is the only way millions of Pakistani voters can signal and record this discontent - safely.

This is an electoral reform which will shift the balance of power from the small group of men who decide who the destiny of our democracy, who decide who will contest elections and represent the welfare of 154 districts and the fate of 250 million citizens. If political parties do not choose candidates which will prioritize their constituent’s welfare, then the electorate must also have a means to formally indicate that sentiment.

Once NOTA is on the ballot, the electorate will then need to be appraised of such a choice and option. There will be a need for a massive public awareness campaign around None of the Above as a choice on the ballot. But first it needs to make it on the ballot as an option.

I pray the courts direct the Election Commission of Pakistan to include NOTA in its rules. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has already directed the ECP to include this as an option in 2012.

In fact, the new labels of ‘democratic’, ‘forward block’ or ‘new’ subdivisions of the same group of people are merely Orwellian labels, further driving Pakistanis away from any idea of democracy or any semblance of decent governance.

Let us give our very tired Pakistani brethren some hope. The current meat market’s stench can’t be hidden with dry-cleaned recycled reps. In fact, the new labels of ‘democratic’, ‘forward block’ or ‘new’ subdivisions of the same group of people are merely Orwellian labels, further driving Pakistanis away from any idea of democracy or any semblance of decent governance. Of course, there will be many who continue to like the dry-cleaned clothes and that is their choice. But choice means yea or nay. Both.

Therefore, to be fair and equitable both choices must be recorded for us to be truthful, to all of us. Therefore, NOTA on the ballot provides a semblance of a formal balance in the electoral process in the reality of Pakistan’s political landscape. A tiny step towards giving the voter, however disempowered a ray of control in her hands.

I fear we are unraveling as a people, as community and as a nation. How do we return from the brink? Democracy.

This is our only hope. It is the only way I see Pakistan surviving. We have read the demise of Pakistan every year, for 76 years, but we really have seemed to bottom out. The common denominator in all the permutations of the fracture we are witnessing today is the acute sense of hopelessness. A nation cannot grow or develop without hope. The managers of the state have chosen to unleash fear, and unrepentant violence on citizens to bring them into further submission. But for how long.

I do not want chaos. I want democratic voices to be heard and recorded. Political party bosses to listen and shift their choices and priorities in favor of the constituents. I want to exercise my choice as voter on the ballot so that my representative listens and pivots their attention towards me.