Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Karachi's disenfranchised voters fight to be counted

by Ali Arqam

Amidst the endless saga of ethno-political violence, faith based killings and a crime rate that refused to abate, Karachi is again in the eye of a storm, this time for another reason. It is the Supreme Court’s move against discrepancies in electoral rolls, directives on voter re-verifications and delimitations of constituencies. The move has faced a mixed response from political parties, public policy and rights advocacy groups and monitoring bodies.

To one side, we have the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), whose leaders and activists have shown anger at a decision that shows the party in a bad light.

On the other side are the rest of the parties who feel they have been given a lifeline since the MQM, they believe, used muscle to manipulate the entire electoral process in the megapolis.

Meanwhile, a contempt of court notice has been served to the MQM Chief Altaf Hussain for his fiery speech on the 2nd of December. This has not been received well by MQM enthusiasts, whose protests and forced closure of businesses brought the city to a standstill for a number of days.

After the initial frenzy, the MQM decided to file a review of the SC verdict on delimitation and has started consultations with legal experts.

Last year, a fact finding committee by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) attempted to trace the roots of violence in the city. After consultations with intellectuals, academics, political parties’ representatives and holding public hearing sessions, they compiled a report, “Karachi: the Unholy alliances for mayhem.” In their recommendations,they stated that,

“Mainstreaming and integrating all communities in Karachi is vital because of the multi-faceted polarisation of the city. Imaginative steps need to be taken to prevent discrimination or marginalisation of particular communities to end the resentment on which violence feeds. No-go areas established by different political parties in Karachi should be cleared and barriers should be removed permanently.”

SC directives on the delimitation also came last year in its judgement in the suo motu case on the law and order situation in Karachi in October 2011. It has suggested the process as one of the solutions to ethno-political violence. The judgment states;

“….in view of relevant laws, delimitation of different constituencies has also to be undertaken with the same object and purpose, particularly to make Karachi … a peaceful city … The Election Commission of Pakistan may also initiate the process on its own in this behalf….”

The delimitation issue

The existing list of constituencies came after the 1998 census report. These constituencies have been finalised in June, 2002 and amended in June, 2007 under section 10-A of Delimitation act of 1974. The ECP has again referred to the powers assigned to them by the relevant law cited above.

The administrative structure of the city was changed with the local governments system in 2001. The five districts comprising Karachi division were abolished to establish a City District Government based on 18 administrative units known as towns. But when constituencies for the elections to the national and provincial assemblies were delimited, in most cases these were based on the old administrative units.

While setting parameters for delimitation, ECP suggests as, “All constituencies are required to be delimited having regard to the distribution of population in geographically compact areas, existing boundaries of administrative units , facilities of communication , public convenience and other cognate factors to ensure homogeneity in the creation of constituencies.”

A closer look at the maps of NA constituencies brings out that some of the constituencies have been demarked by stretching its boundaries to distant and non-adjacent areas, and some neighbouring localities shared out among various constituencies.

“In Karachi, some constituencies are in crescent shape …some are made in the shape of frying pans with their handles protruding into other constituencies. Some constituencies are in the shape of narrow corridors with their length going beyond twenty miles when, in fact, all the above constituencies could have been drawn to make sense...” states The Frontier Post

“The gerrymandering in the delimitation was aimed at benefiting a particular political party. It has been undertaken to keep its support base intact, while the other parties have suffered due to carving up of their support base in different constituencies in such a way, they could not manage to get sufficient votes to be elected from these constituencies,” says Bashir Jan, general secretary, ANP Sindh.

The Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) has an ambitious proposal to make 7 NA and 14 PS constituencies based on adjacent and neighbouring Pashtun localities. They have presented the layout of a large size Karachi map, in which areas with Pashtun populations have been marked in such a way. Though the feasibility of the plan is questionable, the PkMAP, despite its minimal electoral presence, seems to have worked on its theory extensively and have also chalked out a strategy for reaching out to voters.

The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) have a different take on the issue. They have raised pertinent questions regarding the delimitation bid initiated by ECP. In a position paper, they have analysed the laws governing delimitation and urged careful reconsideration by the ECP and have asked the honourable court for further illumination on some aspects of the issue.

“Ahead of the 2008 election, the ECP had declined all requests for fresh delimitation on the grounds of census-related embargo on fresh delimitation of constituencies/reallocation of seats contained in Article 51(3) the constitution as well as section 7(2) of the Delimitation of Constituencies Act 1974”.

This is the exact position which the ECP needs to respectfully but effectively communicate to the Supreme Court at present. At this stage of the electoral calendar, there are pressing issues before the ECP that must be expeditiously resolved to ensure free and fair elections.”

The electoral rolls issue

Moving on to the issue of the discrepancies in the electoral rolls themselves. All parties concur that a large number of voters have been moved against their consent and their votes have been registered in their native places on the basis of their permanent addresses. But there is a difference of opinion about there actual number.

The number of such votes, says Jamat-e-Islami Karachi Naib Amir Raja Arif Sultan, is around 800,000. “The number of votes trasferred to Balochistan alone are 125,000.”

The ANP’s Bashir Jan disagrees and thinks the JI’s figures are exaggerated. “These amount to 200,000, out of which 137,000 have been restored while around 33,000 are left.”

An MQM spokesman, however, said this figure could be placed at 65,000 out of which only 37,000 are left.

These votes include, quite brazenly, well-known figures as well. “My own wife’s vote is registered back home in KP,” says Irfanullah Marwat, who used to run the iconic Pakhtun-Punjabi Ittehad (PPI) and is now in the PML(N). Another city notable, the ANP’s Rana Gul Afridi, despite contesting provincial assembly seats three times since 1988, hasn’t been able to get registered in the city himself.

Many voters have their names in provisional electoral rolls (PER) but have been omitted from final electoral rolls (FER).

Hundreds of votes can be registered against the same address. The case of 641 seats being registered from a single house saw much media light. This was in PECHS, in the constituency of the MQM’s Syed Wasim Akhtar. Also from PECHS is Faran Hotel, which had 90 votes.

In fact, many houses that have three to four actual votes, have half a dozen ghost ones as well. Many votes registered across the same gharana numbers.

Then there are the scores of votes in every block that have incomplete or dubious addresses. The JI estimates these to be around 400,000. Bashir Jan agrees. The MQM, he alleges, spreads the drifter votes around in diffeent constituencies to decrease their concentrations.

According to ECP statistics, 2.8 million out of the total 3 million unverified votes are from Karachi.

What now?

The ECP had sought two weeks from the SC for coming up with a consolidated plan for delimitation of constituencies. The process of re-verification of electoral rolls will start from the first of January. A staff of 18,000 persons will go on with the door-to-door verification process for disenfranchised or dislocated voters and rectifying other discrepancies to be completed in 65 days. It has called on the political parties through letters not to nominate more than two representatives to attend the meeting on December 20 at the ECP Secretariat, Islamabad. Also, ministries of defence and interior have been asked for the provision of Army and FC to assist ECP in the door-to-door verification of electoral rolls.

Now the onus is on the ECP to address the concerns of political parties and their supporters and add to the credibility of the ECP as an institution.

But all the activism of the Supreme Court and the efficacy of ECP cannot contribute more than a minor change of proportion in the parliament. It would be too much to expect these actions to heal the bleeding city. The key lies in the hands of political elites, who seem indifferent to the sufferings of a commoner in the megapolis. The militarisation which took place due to state’s pursuit of ideological goals has crosses previous bounds.

Farrukh Saleem has stated it well in an opinion piece titled “Why Karachi bleeds” in The News International, “The political elite, for their own interests, manipulate the security concerns of the masses through intentional incitements of ethnic animosities. Neither MQM nor ANP trust that the government has either the ability or the will to protect them against an attack. Then there is a spiralling cycle in which members of Group A mobilise and arm themselves to deter an attack from Group B. Group B, in turn, views the mobilisation threatening and arms itself to deter an attack. Fear leads to bloody conflict.”

The mess cannot be harnessed through cosmetic steps. At the end, it is the people who have to defy all these bounds and fractionation rooted both in fear and veneration.

-This article was first published by Pique and republished with permission of the author. Ali Arqam is a Peshawar University graduate and a freelance journalist, who contributes to www.qissa-khwani.com and tweets at @aliarqam
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