July 26, 2012 Islamabad: Pakistan’s democratic transition faces formidable challenges, concluded experts at a roundtable organized by Jinnah Institute, a public policy think tank. The event was organized to inform public debate on the key challenges to free and fair elections in the future.
Experts identified the production of error free electoral rolls as one of the major challenges to holding inclusive elections. Sarwar Bari from Pattan said that according to an audit done by the Free and Fair Election Network about 3.9 million eligible voters, mostly women, have not been registered to vote.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar an academic and political activist criticized the media for being superficial in its coverage of electoral politics and not paying attention to the disturbing ethnic faultlines that are mapping onto electoral trends and have the potential to become violent flashpoints in the future.
"Over 3.9 million eligible voters need to be registered before the election"
Mohammad Malick, anchor at Dunya News Network, pointed out that the media is constrained by its commercial imperatives such as securing high ratings for its programs. Therefore, anchors are unable to address details of electoral politics and will only begin focusing on it once elections are announced. He also stressed that the media’s role is to inform and discuss and not to reform the society. He urged members of the electronic media to remember this in the lead up to the elections in order to ensure impartiality.
Farrukh Pitafi, anchor and columnist suggested that media impartiality in the lead up to the elections is necessary but will be challenging to achieve. He suggested either setting a ceiling on airtime given to one political party in the news or doing an audit of airtime given to various political actors in order to inform media persons and houses of biases that might exist in their electoral coverage.
"Electronic and Social Media to play an important role in upcoming democratic transition"
All experts agreed that social media will play an important role in the upcoming elections and could provide an alternative to traditional corporate media. Raza Rumi, Director Policy and Programs at Jinnah Institute cautioned that the appeal of social media was limited to urban areas and while we must encourage social media activists to play their part, we must also push traditional media to highlight debates that are central to the conduct of free and fair elections.
According to Marvi Sirmed, human rights activist, ensuring that women and minorities get their right to vote will be a challenge and one civil society and media need to address. Arsched Sharif, TV anchor pointed out that we also need to be prepared to handle the threat of electoral violence.
"New electoral laws require an urgent review before elections"
All participants agreed that certain new laws such as the ban on politicians transporting voters to the polls were impractical and needed to be reviewed in consultation with all major stakeholders. Shahnawaz Khar, from Dawn noted that without transport many voters will be disenfranchised as they would not be able to reach the polls. Participants also urged the Election Commission to review campaign finance laws and implement them across the board.