Fears of low voter turnout in Pakistan despite campaign

February 17th, 2008 - 11:04 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Benazir Bhutto
By Devirupa Mitra
Rawalpindi, Feb 17 (IANS) Pakistan’s voters, worried after a spate of suicide bomb blasts at political rallies and outside party offices, may stay away from Monday’s polls even as civil society groups through advertisements on private TV channels, FM radio as well as text messages have urged the 80 million electorate to cast their ballot. Pakistan goes to polls to elect 272 members to the National Assembly, as well 577 for the provincial assemblies. The elections had been postponed from Jan 8, after the assassination of former Pakistan prime minister and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto moments after she addressed a rally Dec 27.

Even after that, the election campaign has been dogged by fears of terrorist attacks after a suicide bomb blast at a rally of the Awami National Party and another outside a candidate’s election office, both of which left scores dead.

This has pushed voluntary organizations to work harder to get their message across, with the media of choice for the bigger civil society groups, flush with Western funding, being the numerous private TV channels that are doing round-the-clock blanket election coverage.

A TV spot by Free And Fair Election Network (Fafen), an umbrella Pakistani civil rights group, shows a poster of a flower with three petals, representing the three wings of a democratic group that is only alive due to the “strong roots” of the public. “So, we are the one who will keep democracy alive,” says an actor in the ad.

Similarly, another ad spot says that choosing the right candidate could be the only answer to stop the violence.

In fact, the lack of security has been documented by Fafen, which reported that voters in 134 constituencies fear that there would be violence on the election day. The citizen-observers deployed by Fafen in 130 constituencies expressed similar apprehensions.

While private TV channels across Pakistan are delivering a simple message “Use your vote”, the official government channel shows a more basic missive: “Lose with grace”.

Prominent Pakistani economist Kaiser Bengali believed that the turnout would be extremely low.

“It could be the lowest election turnout since 1988, despite all the awareness and the media hype,” he said, adding that the reason was that the parties did not speak in terms of fulfilling the basic needs of the people.

“There was no talk of roti or makaan. There was only the ghost of Benazir hanging over the parties,” he added.

The voter turnout in the 1988 general elections was 43 percent, which dipped even further to 35 percent in 1997. In 2002, the voter turnout was just 41.8 percent.

While analysts writing in Pakistani newspapers predict a low turnout, they have also expressed apprehension about the reaction from opposition supporters in case the results show a tilt towards the ruling party.

Although polling stations will be guarded by two rings of security, the spectre of violence has made voters uncertain about exercising their right, and many plan to keep themselves glued to the television and radio to check the situation before venturing out of their homes.

“There is so much entrenched support between the two sides, that violence is always at a trigger,” said a grocer, Arif Khan, in this congested twin city of the Pakistani capital, a candle lighting his shop as he waited out the hour of power cut.

The outside of his shop is plastered with political posters of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), with a Royal Bengal tiger perched majestically on the shoulders of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

At an outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two childhood friends were sitting at the window seat, as they looked out onto a dark main road, potholed and barely lit by streetlights.

“I will certainly vote. I have decided,” said 27-year-old Ghazi Aslam Ahmed, a civil engineer, while his friend, 26-year-old Adnan Ahmed, a software engineer with a multinational company, was still undecided on his choice.

But both asserted they planned to vote against the ruling party. “My vote is not just against the Q league, it is against (President Pervez) Musharraf,” said Adnan.

He cited the strong-arming of the judiciary and a weak foreign policy as his reasons for anger against the president. “I was in LUMS (Lahore University Management School), where students from the best families in Pakistan are generally not interested in politics. But, I saw how angry they became after the chief justice was removed. They were outraged and came out on the streets,” he said.

A few shop shutters away, 23-year-old Ahistan Mahboob was selling soft, furry toys to well-dressed small children, clinging to the fingers of their upper-middle class parents.

“If Bibi (Benazir Bhutto) was still alive, my vote would have gone to her. She was the only person who was prime minister material in the way she talked,” said Mahboob. “Bilawal (her son) is too young and Asif Zardari (husband) is too tainted.”

Looking for the right shoe for her son, 35-year-old Azra Rahen has given up - on her country. “I pray that we go in the right direction, but I can only see darkness,” said Rahen, an interior designer.

“I will not go to the polling booth. If I go, I am likely to tear up the ballot papers,” she said, half joking.

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