Technology helps Pakistan to ‘fairest’ polls

Technology helps Pakistan to ‘fairest’ polls

ISLAMABAD - Agence France-Presse
Technology helps Pakistan to ‘fairest’ polls

Supporters of cleric Tahir-ul Qadri, whose party announced last month to boycott the elections, gathered at a rally to protest against the corrupt electoral system. Pakistan still has a long way to go for a better electoral process. AFP Photo

Although it was targeted by the Taliban, women and minorities were vastly under-represented and videos of irregularities went viral online, Pakistan’s 2013 election may still have been its fairest ever.

A much-improved voter roll, near-record turnout and vigilant citizens tweeting alleged rigging all played their part in what former Norwegian Prime Minister and election observer Kjell Magne Bondevik called “a credible expression of the will of the people.”

The May 11 election saw about 50 million Pakistanis vote, with center-right former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif emerging the winner nearly 14 years after he was deposed in a coup. Violence in the run-up to polls and on election day itself killed more than 150 people, according to an Agence France-Presse tally, as the Taliban set their sights in particular on secular parties that made up the outgoing government.

Democracy against religious orthodoxy

But despite the threat, nearly 60 percent of the country’s registered 86 million voters went to the polls, moving Pakistani columnist Murtaza Haider to hail his country as “the world’s bravest democracy.”

“The results of May 11 elections prove once again that if given the opportunity, Pakistani masses would embrace democracy against the religious orthodoxy,” he wrote in Dawn, one of the country’s leading English-language newspapers.

The process was far from perfect. Eleven million fewer women voted than men, with militant threats and social conservatism excluding them altogether in parts of the northwest and tribal areas, including the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan.

Yet overall women’s participation was higher than ever, particularly in urban areas, and almost three times as many women ran for office as in 2008.

“The main thing was serious interest in the election and we have a very heavy participation by women everywhere. So I think this was a good election,” said IA Rehman, a veteran human rights activist.

Women registration rises to 86 percent

Some of the credit goes to Pakistan’s database authority, which oversaw an increase in the registration of women from 50 percent during the last polls to 86 percent by adding all adults with an ID card to the voter roll.

The agency culled the dead from the electoral roll, and clamped down on ID card fraud that resulted in some people voting dozens of times in the last election.

It put in place measures that allowed polling stations to access would-be voters’ photographs and even check thumb impressions against the national database in cases of suspected fraud.

The agency also allowed voters to SMS their ID card number to instantly find which polling station they should use – a serviced accessed 55 million times.

“Technology has strengthened democracy in Pakistan, enhanced turnout, eroded corruption and enhanced transparency,” Tariq Malik, chairman of the National Database Registration Authority, told AFP.

However, there is still a long way to go. More than 200,000 people from the persecuted Ahmadi community boycotted the election in protest at having to vote as minorities and not Muslims. And turnout was very low in restive Baluchistan province, which has seen a bloody insurgency since 2004.