Pakistan Needs NOTA On The Ballot: "None Of The Above"

Pakistan Needs NOTA On The Ballot:
Pakistan is a democracy in name only. The country has a Constitution, which has been amended at will multiple times, disregarded, suspended, and disrespected, in so many forms that we have lost count. On the other hand, we also wave the rule of law mantra, but only when it is convenient to prosecute the vulnerable or when we find ourselves in the opposition, on behalf of the permanent powers.

This circus must end. Reform must be carried out.

How do we begin change where there are no change agents even in a supposedly democratic system? The recent revelation from a retired general is not a first; his predecessors have done exactly the same. All part of Pakistan’s perpetual cycle of the same behavior, with exactly the same outcomes.

Our parliamentarians have conveniently woken up to judicial overreach by clipping the suo motu powers of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. A move which should have come many years ago, albeit timing does matter. Nevertheless, it is an important ring fencing of arbitrary and unchecked individual power over the destiny of too many.

Similarly, our political parties are run like monarchies or family businesses, or both. Therefore, the electorate is quite exhausted after 50 years of democracy in name only, with their circus of life in constant peril, in the land of the pure. It is time now, and they need some incentive to remain democrats in a country where divisions seem intractable if left to fester any longer.

How do we begin to dent this log jam in a system which refuses to even put a dent on elite capture or antipeople politics? We need an instrument to believe in the power of democracy.

This is where NOTA, or "none of the above" becomes critical on the ballot.

Many countries have NOTA as an option. It is an instrument which provides some power in the hands of the voter. Pakistan’s constitution guarantees fundamental rights for its citizens. To be able to exercise that enshrined right and to be able to voice it, this instrument must be available on the ballot.

NOTA is an opinion by the electorate - that must be documented and analyzed by political parties, who must respond accordingly. NOTA facilitates the disenchanted voter’s voice to be formally counted in an election.

NOTA will also certainly encourage the non-participating electorate to come to the polls and participate in the electoral process. An instrument which brings more eligible citizens to the polls cannot be discouraged or shunned. It is an instrument of deepening democracy and widening the participation of many marginalized opinions in our polity.

The legislature must have the full mandate of the electorate. Legitimacy is based in a democracy on both options on the ballot - to accept the list of candidates on offer, or to reject it completely. Currently, the ballot paper gives the electorate no options; they end up electing the same candidates over and over again, despite the spectacular failures and lack of capacity repeatedly on display. They have no reason not to. There is nothing weak, vulnerable constituents can do. But NOTA changes all that.

The elasticity between the electorate and the political leadership becomes very elastic - overcoming many cultural social and financial barrier to name a few. Through NOTA, the power transfers to the voter, which is unimaginable.

Political parties in Pakistan are not internally democratic. The permanent culture is that Zardari, Sharif and Imran decide who gets what tickets. They have committees for form and codified processes, but there is one king in each set up which distributes and allocates power. Moreover, these considerations are based on family relationships, favors owed, money, or worse - recommendations by the permanent powers.

Hardily in the interest of the constituency

Observations about the weakness of the democratic process have been made for generations now, without any iota of reform towards democratizing power so that it may reflect the will of the electorate and provide wider representation. We have seen the outcomes of these choices, in our economy, national indicators at any level, and most significantly, in the belief in democracy in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s budgetary priorities are also reflected in the existing democratic system. Pakistan’s investment in its people is also reflected in the current electoral processes, and that results in the country’s abysmal performance on development indicators.

We continue to be offered permanent ‘electables’ in every election cycle. Its time they are told that they have finally run their course; their expiration date must be recognized - formally.  NOTA provides a legal, democratic, direct, and accountable way to enforce an expiry date on these clowns.

NOTA provides an option – openly, transparently and in accurate numbers, reflecting Pakistanis’ desires in removing those who cling to the legislature through a non-violent and democratic means. What more can one ask for in an environment full of divisions and distress.

It is time to elect a new generation of representatives of the people. Let the youth participate in the governance of this country. NOTA can be an instrument of change towards that goal.

Why is NOTA not an option on our ballot?

Only those who fear that the people, once allowed the freedom to choose or reject their representatives as they see fit, would challenge this option. Anyone who argues that the choice to reject exits already, by not voting, is being intellectually dishonest. Why would any democrat want a percentage of the electorate disgruntled or not, to stay away from the polls? Only those who want to manipulate the results want fewer people going to the polls to legitimize a representative’s tiny vote bank. More people at the polls means that the legitimacy of the resulting outcome of the elections will be stronger.

Do we want more people voting and coming to the polls, or less? We need a democratic instrument to encourage the eligible Pakistani voter, to come to the polls and exercise their right to participate in the process of electing a representative responsible for our collective destiny. This means voters can go on the record with their discontent and disapproval of the candidate on offer.

By excluding NOTA votes, as they have done so far effectively, and knowingly, the state is in fact, challenging the electorate’s rights, by denying people their right to vote. I would go so far as to say that it is malafide intentions behind such anti-democratic decisions. Why deny this fundamental right?  A difference of opinion is a hallmark of a healthy and vibrant polity.

What are NOTA’s opponents scared of?

NOTA would also allow Pakistanis to deepen our fragile democracy. It would provide more legitimacy to anyone who wins a seat! Let’s not forget that we have seen ridiculous elections, where women have been barred from casting their vote, or candidates ‘winning’ by 300 cast votes or similar ridiculous elections, where there is no way a candidate can be considered an accurate representative of that constituency - but has been thus far.

All those anomalies have been rectified on paper by various laws. It is now time to add NOTA on our ballot as well, to ensure that the very tired Pakistani electorate can indicate clearly what they think of the candidates on offer on the ballot in their constituency.

If Pakistanis want to take some control over their destiny, I urge the public to demand for NOTA on the ballot. In an already polarized society, it is essential that for our next general and provincial elections, whenever they are, the voter has this option.

How many voters end up contemplating what the point is of elections in Pakistan? If we have an election without reforms, we the people will bear some responsibility for bringing back the same failed politicians, to do more of the same failed politics, all over again.

Why bother with elections, currently an expensive and futile exercise? How are we supposed to force reform democratically - without violence?

NOTA is one serious tool to do just that.