Why does every general election in Pakistan become controversial?

Shahid H. Raja
7 min readFeb 11, 2024

Introduction

Pakistan, a country with a rich political history, has undergone numerous general elections over the past five decades. However, almost every electoral process has been marred by controversy, allegations of rigging, and malpractices. While it would be simplistic to label every election as fraudulent, the recurring issues in the electoral process demand a deeper examination. There are multiple reasons behind the controversy surrounding Pakistan’s general elections. Some of these are

1. Historical Baggage

The legacy of suspicion and mistrust surrounding the conduct of general elections in Pakistan is deeply entrenched within the nation’s historical narrative. It is indeed an irony of fate that, except for the landmark 1970 general elections, every electoral process has been marred by allegations of rigging and malpractice. This pattern of controversy casts a long shadow over the legitimacy of electoral outcomes in the country.

One poignant example of this historical baggage dates to the early years of Pakistan’s independence when the term “Jhurloo” denoting fraudulent practices and electoral manipulation, gained notoriety during the 1954 general elections. Keep in mind, that these elections were held when the stalwarts of the Pakistan movement were running the country.

The enduring impact of historical injustices and electoral malpractices has transcended generations, perpetuating a culture of scepticism and mistrust surrounding general elections in Pakistan. The disillusionment stemming from past electoral controversies has been passed down to subsequent generations, shaping their perceptions and expectations regarding the integrity of the electoral process.

2. Governance Deficit

At the heart of the governance deficit lies a systemic failure to enforce accountability and transparency in electoral processes. Despite recurring instances of electoral misconduct and fraud, there is a pervasive lack of repercussions for those responsible. Politicians and officials who engage in electoral malpractice often face minimal consequences, if any, thereby perpetuating a culture of impunity. This lack of accountability not only undermines the credibility of electoral outcomes but also erodes public confidence in the integrity of the democratic process. Furthermore, it has emboldened perpetrators to act with impunity, eroding the credibility of electoral institutions and exacerbating public distrust.

Moreover, the governance deficit extends beyond electoral misconduct to encompass broader issues of governance and institutional effectiveness. Weak governance structures, rampant corruption, and a lack of transparency contribute to an environment where electoral malpractice thrives unchecked. The absence of robust checks and balances within the political system further exacerbates the cycle of suspicion and mistrust, as citizens perceive electoral processes as vulnerable to manipulation and abuse.

3. Capability Deficit

Pakistan’s extensive geographic expanse, combined with its significant population size, presents an immense logistical challenge for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in conducting smooth and transparent elections. With an estimated 13 million registered voters, constituting the fifth-largest voter base globally, scattered across diverse constituencies, the task at hand is monumental. This vast and varied landscape creates logistical hurdles that impede the efficient execution of electoral processes.

The geographic diversity of Pakistan encompasses remote and hard-to-reach areas, as well as densely populated urban centres. Constituencies located in remote regions pose significant accessibility challenges for election officials, often necessitating arduous journeys to reach polling stations. Conversely, densely populated urban constituencies strain the resources of election officials due to the sheer volume of voters and logistical complexities associated with managing large voter turnout.

The consequential capability deficit within the Election Commission of Pakistan manifests in delays in the compilation and submission of election results. The logistical challenges inherent in reaching polling stations and collecting ballot boxes contribute to these delays. As a result, the timely reporting of election results is compromised, casting doubts on the authenticity of the electoral outcomes. The perception of post-election rigging emerges from these delays, as the extended timeline fuels speculation and amplifies public scepticism regarding the integrity of the electoral process.

Moreover, the capability deficit is exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure and resources, including insufficient transportation and communication networks in remote areas. These limitations impede the efficient deployment of election officials and the timely transmission of election-related data, further contributing to delays and logistical challenges.

4. Capacity Deficit

The capacity deficit of polling staff, appointed to conduct elections in more than 25000 polling stations nationwide, represents a significant impediment to the smooth conduct of elections in Pakistan. Their intime recruitment and training often fall short of meeting the demands of the electoral process. This deficit is exacerbated by the predominant selection of lower-level personnel with limited training and experience, rendering them ill-equipped to navigate the complexities inherent in their roles.

The inadequately trained polling staff grapple with a myriad of challenges during the electoral process, ranging from voter verification to ballot distribution and result compilation. Their inadequate proficiency and familiarity with electoral procedures lead to inefficiencies and delays at various stages of the electoral process. Consequently, the timely compilation and submission of election results are compromised, prolonging the overall duration of the electoral process, and amplifying suspicions of manipulation and fraud among stakeholders and the general public alike.

Instances of mismanagement, errors in voter registration, and discrepancies in ballot counting further fuel perceptions of electoral malpractice. These shortcomings not only undermine the credibility of the electoral process but also erode public trust in the integrity of election outcomes, perpetuating a cycle of scepticism and controversy.

5. Trust Deficit

In Pakistani society, a profound lack of trust in institutions, particularly the Election Commission, pervades various facets of public life. This widespread distrust stems from a culmination of historical grievances, systemic failures, and perceived inadequacies in ensuring the integrity of electoral processes. Over time, these factors have collectively eroded public confidence in the fairness and transparency of the electoral system, giving rise to a persistent trust deficit that undermines the legitimacy of election outcomes.

Historical grievances dating back to past electoral malpractices and controversies have left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of Pakistani citizens. Instances of electoral rigging, manipulation, and irregularities, coupled with perceived impunity for perpetrators, have sowed seeds of scepticism regarding the credibility of electoral processes. These historical scars serve as a constant reminder of past injustices, fuelling distrust in the ability of electoral institutions to uphold democratic principles and ensure free and fair elections.

Systemic failures within the electoral framework have further exacerbated the trust deficit. Inadequate mechanisms for ensuring transparency, accountability, and oversight in the electoral process have allowed room for manipulation and abuse. Instances of administrative inefficiencies, logistical challenges, and delays in result reporting have contributed to public perceptions of incompetence and malfeasance within the Election Commission. Consequently, even in the absence of concrete evidence of deliberate fraud, the prevailing trust deficit casts a shadow of doubt over the legitimacy of election results, perpetuating a cycle of suspicion and controversy.

6. Tolerance Deficit

Pakistan’s political landscape is characterized by a profound deficit of tolerance, particularly evident in the aftermath of electoral defeats. Rather than accepting electoral outcomes with grace and engaging in constructive dialogue, losing parties often resort to casting doubt on the legitimacy of the electoral process. The intolerance towards electoral defeat manifests in various forms, ranging from accusations of rigging to outright refusal to accept election results.

Thus, instead of pursuing avenues for redress through established legal channels or engaging in post-election audits, these parties opt for inflammatory rhetoric and public denouncement, fostering an atmosphere of distrust and scepticism. This knee-jerk reaction further exacerbates the prevailing culture of contestation and confrontation among political actors, undermining the acceptance of electoral outcomes and eroding public trust in the democratic process.

Moreover, the intolerance towards electoral defeat is perpetuated by a broader culture of political polarization and adversarial politics. Political discourse in Pakistan is often characterized by divisive rhetoric and personal attacks, which further entrenches partisan divides and undermines the spirit of democratic governance. This toxic environment not only impedes meaningful dialogue and compromise but also erodes public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.

Furthermore, the intolerance towards electoral defeat poses a significant obstacle to the consolidation of democratic norms and institutions in Pakistan. By delegitimizing electoral outcomes and undermining the authority of electoral institutions, this culture of intolerance undermines the foundational principles of democracy, including peaceful transition of power and respect for electoral mandates. The failure to uphold these principles not only perpetuates controversy surrounding general elections but also threatens the stability and legitimacy of Pakistan’s democratic system.

7. Information Deficit

With the proliferation of news channels, social media platforms, and YouTube channels vying for ratings and viewership, sensationalism often takes precedence over factual reporting. News anchors and YouTubers, driven by the pursuit of increased followers and engagement, are quick to capitalize on any perceived shortcomings in the electoral process.

Instead of providing objective analysis, they sensationalize minor lapses and amplify them to the detriment of electoral institutions like the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This rush to judgment creates an information deficit wherein the public is inundated with biased narratives and exaggerated claims of election rigging. Their unchecked commentary and partisan agendas contribute to a climate of distrust and suspicion, undermining the credibility of electoral processes.

Conclusion:

The controversy surrounding general elections in Pakistan is a multifaceted issue stemming from a confluence of factors. The capability and capacity deficits within the Election Commission, coupled with a pervasive trust deficit in institutions, exacerbate public scepticism. Moreover, the intolerance towards electoral defeat entrenched within Pakistan’s political culture perpetuates a cycle of controversy and contention. Addressing these challenges requires concerted efforts to strengthen electoral institutions, enhance transparency, and foster a culture of tolerance and trust. Only through comprehensive reforms and a commitment to upholding democratic principles can Pakistan overcome the recurring controversies plaguing its electoral processes.

From the book “Pakistan Affairs: 25 Essays”, published by Amazon and available at

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