Monday, February 25, 2008

Carnivals vs curfews, and other intricacies of political suppor

Sunday, February 24, 2008
By Urooj Zia
Karachi: One of the factors for gauging the popular support or mass base of a political party is the number of people that turn out to vote for the party during elections. Voter turnout can however be a very vague term if one judges it only by looking at official election results.

In NA-249 Karachi, MQM stalwart Dr Farooq Sattar eventually won by a staggering margin of 30,623 votes, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) website. Earlier in the evening however, while the vote count was showing that Dr Sattar was losing by a wide margin in what is almost considered his home constituency, he called a press conference and alleged that the PPP had rigged votes in his area.

In other areas of Karachi, the ECP website showed that around 200,000 votes were cast in some constituencies, especially in district central. To take one example, the website states that a total of 187,074 votes were cast in NA-244. The winning candidate there, from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), is said to have obtained 185,582 votes, while the remaining votes were distributed among the runners-up, which included candidates from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), as well as independent candidates.

A visit to these polling stations on February 18 had however, revealed virtually deserted polling booths, with less than 25 voters present within a polling station at any given time.

The ECP website lists 172 polling stations for NA-244. With a liberal average of three polling booths per polling station, a total of 516 polling booths can be assumed within the entire constituency. By noon February 18, less than 75 votes had been cast at a majority of these booths, and officials there had claimed that the voter turnout had been very low, but was "expected to increase after 02:00 p.m."

Assuming that more people started coming in after 02:00 p.m., and polling officials took an average of three minutes for each voter, around 20 people cast their votes every hour, making a total of 10,320 votes per hour for the entire constituency. Polling continued from 09:00 a.m. to 05:00 p.m., and thus no more than 95,000 votes could have been cast humanly on February 18 in NA-244.

Those were liberal estimates. Added to this is the general curfew-like atmosphere that was prevalent in areas of district central. Shops remained closed in Liaquatabad, North Karachi, North Nazimabad, Azizabad, etc. The roads were deserted, and the only places which showed signs of human life were the party camps set up right outside polling stations.

Only three PPP camps were seen in the area behind Haidery Market in North Nazimabad. Officials at one of the PPP camps in the area claimed that their chief polling agent had disappeared and was untraceable. This was compounded by the fact that PPP polling agents at stations in MQM-dominated areas were a rare sight. Polling officials at these stations did not seem concerned by this fact, however.

This was in stark contrast to areas in district central that are traditionally thought to be dominated by the PPP and the Awami National Party (ANP). Shershah, Mauripur, Banaras, Orangi Town and Sohrab Goth looked festive. Shops and restaurants were open and doing brisk business, while entire families were out on the streets, singing, dancing and chanting slogans for their parties. Polling agents from almost all contesting parties, including the MQM, PPP, ANP, MMA, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), and even the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q), were present at most polling booths in these areas. There were discrepancies at these polling stations too – the presence of ANP and PPP activists inside some polling booths, for instance – but their presence was apparently ratified and accepted by polling agents of other parties present. "They're here to maintain peace and ensure that everything goes smoothly," an MQM polling agent at a booth in Banaras had said.

It may also be put on record that some irregularities were also reported in certain PPP-dominated areas. In these stations the PPP managed to get its way while the ECP and polling officials concerned took the other way. In the final analysis, however, one can say that the deserted streets and empty polling booth hallways in some areas, compared with a carnival-like atmosphere in other areas proved once and for all that respect in politics is given voluntarily, and only grudging obedience can be obtained by force.

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