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Change the political chessboard

Pakistan stands at a critical juncture in its democratic journey, grappling with a deepening political crisis that threatens to undermine the very fabric of its society.

At the heart of this crisis lies an electoral system that perpetuates polarization and disenfranchisement, stifling the voices of emerging social classes and perpetuating divisions among its citizens.

The ‘winner take all’ or first past the post system (FPTP) in Pakistani election rules is fueling polarization among Pakistan’s emerging social classes and traditional social classes. The size of the emerging high school educated middle class is rising which is a positive development albeit mixed with a negative consequence. The growing new middle class is isolating itself from the traditional social classes by claiming its monopoly over the right to rule. Since democracy functions by sharing the right to rule, Pakistan’s political system has been dysfunctional for over a decade since the election in 2013.

In 2013, the newly emerging vote bank led by the PTI received 29 per cent of the vote bank in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The winner-take-all rule privileged it to 38 per cent of the seats in the provincial assembly. It was able to form a government in the province. The emergence of a new political player and relatively fresh outlook was welcomed.

The new middle-class vote was however deeply disappointed to realize that in the same election, 17 per cent of the vote in Punjab bagged by it only led to 8.0 per cent of the seats in Punjab. Punjab’s voting chessboard was bipolar, where a runner-up lagging by 8-10 per cent points is highly disadvantaged. It experienced a similar disadvantage in the federal government where its 17 per cent national vote score gave it only 9.0 per cent of seats in the National Assembly. What ensued is well documented (dharnas, myths and falsehoods like thirty-five punctures and the eventual toppling of a PM on what many believed were trumped-up charges).

The 2013 election sowed the seeds of polarization between the emerging middle class and the traditional lagging behind classes, whose educational and income status is in comparison lower than the middle classes.

In the 2024 election, the emerging middle classes led by the PTI scored 45 per cent of the vote in KP’s multipolar electoral chessboard providing it 85 per cent of the seats in the assembly. The rules worked in its favour. In the remaining three provinces, this vote block attained 28 per cent of the vote but only 24 per cent of seats. The same rules put it at a disadvantage.

There is good evidence to suggest that the ‘winner-take-all’ electoral system fails to produce a smooth political system when society is passing through a stage of social polarization. The data from the Gallup Exit Poll Surveys provides revealing evidence of rising social polarization in the voters’ electoral choices, the details of which are available in its latest Exit Poll Surveys Report.

It is evident that voters are now divided on age, education and social status – and the chasms are widening with each electoral cycle. The high school educated under 30 years of age and the top two quintiles in terms of income are staunch supporters of the PTI whereas the rest of the voting classes are in favour of the traditional political parties. Within the social strata, these two groups are increasingly reflective of almost equal share in the population. As the gap narrows in their population weight (2013-2024), the strife has become not only more vicious but has also permeated the power circles (civil and military institutions).

Resulting from social polarization, the runner-up voting cluster fails to reconcile with the fact that the winner, number one, gets all the power to rule and the runner-up, number two, gets barely any share. As a result, the loser looks upon the elected government as either a selected government as in 2018, or as a stolen government as in 2013 and 2024. There is no denial of electoral manipulations but there is a wide gap in the sense of deprivation and the level of successful manipulation in both the 2013 and 2024 general elections. The feeling and reality of deprivation caused by electoral manipulations is severely accentuated by the first-past-the-post system which gives monopoly over power to the winner (even if he/she won by one vote) and gives nothing to the loser.

Pakistan may as well therefore switch to any suitable variety of proportional representation (PR) rules to convert votes into seats in the National Assembly. Of the nearly one hundred countries that elect their governments, a vast number does so along one or another variety of proportional representation and so there are many models to seek assistance from. Pakistan already has a PR system when it comes to reserved seats and therefore has some precedence to learn from successes and failures.

Proportional representation offers a more equitable and representative system of governance. This ensures that all segments of society have a voice in the decision-making process, regardless of their geographic concentration or level of support. It also gives all political powers a say in the system and therefore disincentivizes undermining the whole political system for its legitimate or illegitimate gains.

The PR system would also offer two more concrete benefits: strengthening of the local government system (when the national vote will not deliver local representatives, people will be forced to elect local representatives to local bodies to get their issues truly resolved).

The second is that it would create safeguards against manipulation by nonpolitical actors. In the 2024 general elections, if we take the difference between Form 45 provided by the PTI and Form 47 provided by the ECP and take the PTI’s claims at face value, the maximum extent of the manipulated vote is 600,000 votes, which is 1.0 per cent of the total votes cast. However, this purported 1.0 per cent led to as high as a quarter of the seats shifting from one party to the other and making one party leader the PM and the other land in jail. Had our system been PR, the 1.0 per cent manipulation in votes would have led to only 1.0 per cent of the seats changing sides.

Of course, transitioning to proportional representation will not be without its challenges. It will require political will, consensus-building, and a commitment to democratic principles from all stakeholders. Yet, the benefits far outweigh the costs, offering the promise of a more just, inclusive, and representative political system for all Pakistanis.

Although legal experts would be able to comment better, it appears that shifting away from the first-past-the-post system to proportional representation may not require an amendment to the constitution but a simple act in parliament. Regardless of the difficulties in the process, the status quo in political structures is no longer an option, and if anyone believes that the recent lull after significant engineering (read: repression) has provided long-term stability to the structure they are doing a disservice to themselves and the institutions they represent.

Bilal I Gilani, "Change the political chessboard," The News. 2024-03-30.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political system , Democratic , Parliament , Pakistan , ECP , PTI