By-election NA-48: People seem uninterested in electing the second time around

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Aug 23, 2013.

Islamabad – Political parties and candidates failed to mobilize voters in the federal capital as the city witnessed the first-ever by-elections at one of its two National Assembly constituencies on Thursday.

The turnout in Islamabad’s NA-48, the National Assembly seat vacated by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) President Javed Hashmi, hovered around 30 per cent — just around half of the 59.5 per cent turnout polled in the constituency on May 11, the day of the general elections.

The sparse crowds at the 260 polling stations in NA-48 were believed to be mostly due to the administration’s decision not to give a public holiday for the by-polls. Private institutions and markets were open for business throughout the day and government offices only closed around mid-day.

By-elections are usually not expected to draw a voter turnout as substantial as the general elections, according to political analysts. But political workers and residents felt the disinterest among Islamabad voters might also be because the chances of sociopolitical change through by-elections are almost nonexistent. Some residents were also of the opinion that people might be fed up of the democratic process, just three months after they picked their representatives.

Most polling stations in NA-48, where the main battle was between PTI’s Asad Umar and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate Ashraf Gujjar, had received only around 10 per cent of their registered votes.

“On May 11, I did not even get a five-minute break during 12 hours of polling duty,” said Sher Ali, the Presiding Officer at the Islamabad Model College for Girls G-10/4 polling station.

“Today, it is like an extended break,” Ali added, pointing at the empty polling booths. “People seem to have given up.”

Political workers kept saying voters would turn up after 1pm, when the federal government offices were directed to close after half a day of work. But polling stations showed little sign of activity even late in the afternoon.

In the Karachi Company market, Muhammad Ashfaq, a cloth dealer, said he decided not to vote out of bitterness.

“What has the ruling political party done for me in past governments? Nothing,” Ashfaq said. “I don’t expect them to ever change my conditions.”

But most people who did take the time to vote on Thursday appeared to have stuck with their May 11 choices.

“I am giving the PML-N another chance because I feel they need more time to resolve the crises amassed over the past five years,” said Mustafa Sagheer, who cast his ballot at the Islamabad Model College for Boys in I-8/3. “Even the tough steps they have taken, such as the federal budget, were for the greater good.”

Other voters showed up to vote said they did not want their political party’s previous performance down and they felt it was their responsibility to choose the best people to run the country.

Rural areas in NA-48 showed more polling activity compared to urban sectors but even there the PML-N struggled to maintain its traditional hold due to internal party differences. Workers loyal to PML-N’s former Member National Assembly (MNA) Anjum Aqeel Khan were seen supporting the PTI instead.

With the Jamaat-e Islami (JI) candidate out of the running, the Jamaat’s loyalists also mostly opted for the PTI on the directive of JI Amir Munawwar Hassan. But some also abstained and a few others went for the PML-N, according to political workers.

“The JI women and youth are mostly going for PTI,” one political worker said. “But the votes of the men appear to be divided.”

The PTI had caused an upset in the constituency in the general elections when Hashmi had defeated Khan with a margin of around 21,000 votes.

While trade unions in the capital appeared to be supporting the ruling party’s candidate Gujjar to secure their vested interests, it seemed that Umar got the support of people looking for a well-educated representative.

“We are looking at a poor, burning Pakistan where we are worried about the safety of our children,” said Muhammad Zafar, 66, a PTI supporter who said the 2013 general elections was the first time he voted in his life. “If there is any hope for the country, it is in choosing responsible, educated people to run the country.”

Zafar was hopeful the electoral process would not betray the constituents. But those keeping an eye on the process appeared skeptical of its efficacy.

“Our politicians should think about contesting from only one constituency,” a Presiding Officer at an F-10 polling station, who requested anonymity, said. “By-elections not only waste the state’s resources, but the low voter turnout also means that essentially only a few people elect the next representative.”

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