Dawn Editorial 7th February 2024

Shut out

AS Pakistan prepares for its 12th general elections, the glaringly low number of women candidates makes evident the deeply rooted gender disparity in the country. A look at the number of candidates vying for National Assembly seats is telling: among 5,112 candidates, only 313 are women. The Aurat Foundation’s recent complaint to the ECP spotlights this issue. According to the organisation, PPP, JI, ANP, TLP, JUI-F and BNP have fallen short of fielding at least 5pc female candidates on general seats. Even where women are nominated, they are often relegated to constituencies with slim winning chances, a tactic that tokenises rather than empowers female political participation. The situation is grimmer in Kohistan where canvassing for and by women was declared un-Islamic by some local clerics. Although the decree was dismissed by another Kohistan cleric as a “political stunt” to benefit the JUI-F, the very fact that it was issued and the insistence that defying it would be “sinful” is indicative of the kinds of societal hurdles women face. Beyond candidacy, the plight of women voters in conservative areas like Dhurnal in Punjab is equally troubling. There, educated women have been forbidden by their menfolk to exercise their right to vote. The ECP’s authority to void polls in areas where women are barred from voting remains a theoretical deterrent, with little on-the-ground impact where such conservative norms prevail.

Empowering women in Pakistan’s political arena requires more than just legislative quotas. It necessitates a cultural shift that values women’s contributions in public life, encourages their participation as candidates and voters, and fundamentally rethinks their role in Pakistani society. For this to occur, the ECP, political parties and civil society must collaboratively work towards dismantling the barriers — such as regressive traditions, lack of education, and societal expectations regarding household responsibilities — that sidelines half of the country’s population. It must be realised that a woman’s perspective is essential to understand issues like reproductive rights, education, violence against women, and economic empowerment, which disproportionately affect women. Their insight is vital in crafting policies that address these challenges. With the nation standing on the brink of another electoral exercise, we must reflect on the long road ahead in achieving gender parity in politics. The future of a truly democratic and inclusive Pakistan depends on it.

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2024

The day before

WITH political parties instructed yesterday to suspend their campaigns at the stroke of midnight, the ‘pre-poll’ part of election 2024 stands completed. All that is now left is for the votes to be cast and counted and for a winner to be declared.

It is slightly disconcerting how suddenly this election seems to have passed us by. The past two months already seem like a haze of court cases and stop-start political activity. For the longest time, one was unsure if polls would be held, and there were fears of another delay. It was not until about three weeks ago that campaigning began in earnest.

Initially, the jalsas and rallies were damp affairs. The energy, enthusiasm and richness one usually associates with elections in Pakistan remained missing. It felt as if everyone was merely going through the motions; that a commitment to the process was missing.

Much of this was due, perhaps, to the prevailing impression that it was not a fair fight. Out of the two parties that consistently polled among the top two that voters intended to support, one was not allowed to campaign.

Most of the attempts made by the PTI to mobilise were met with arrests and intimidation. Thereafter, it moved its activities online, where its innovations not only helped it survive, but may have also put it in a position to mount a real challenge.

The other party, the PML-N, only hit the road towards the tail-end of the campaigning period. Indeed, it seemed at one point that it would need a push to start participating, considering how disinterested its leaders were. To its credit, the PPP was the only national party that actually took campaigning seriously. It started much earlier than the others and was able to maintain its energy throughout.

Just as the momentum seemed to be picking up, however, time had to be called. Today, voters will discuss and debate their choices with their families, friends, neighbours and fellow citizens. Tomorrow, they will speak through the ballot box.

The PML-N seems to be in a comparatively strong position after its late burst of activity, and because it seems to have the backing of powerful forces within the state. It will be an uphill struggle for the PTI, which is contesting without its traditional symbol and wasn’t able to canvass. Still, the party has shown spirit throughout, and it can pull off an upset if its voters mobilise.

The PPP may prove a dark horse in this race. Even with its support base outside Sindh having dwindled over the years, its deal-making abilities have often seen it beat the odds. It understands better than most how to get ahead. Who will prevail? Not long to go before we find out.

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2024


February 20, 2024

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