Elections 101 - The 2018 General Elections

Election season in Pakistan has begun with the 11th General Elections scheduled to be held on 15th July 2018. While you, as a voter or an observer, do not need to have in-depth knowledge of the entire electoral process, some context about the government and elections can be extremely helpful.

Even in a democracy, not everyone is elected by the people…

In any democracy, people cast their vote to choose who should represent them in the government. Ultimately, tens of millions of Pakistanis would vote to decide on the few hundred people who will make critical decisions on their behalf. What is even more interesting is that these elected officials will not only govern as representatives but cast further votes to elect other parts of the government. In short, your elected representatives will be casting votes on your behalf in the future.

To understand this, it is important to know the structure of the government and the role of the people who get direct votes from the masses. As is pretty common with governments around the world, the government in Pakistan consists of three branches:

There is the Legislative Branch. These are your elected representatives i.e. who we actually vote for, known as the Parliament of Pakistan. Each elected representative typically belongs to a political party, but is in the legislative body to serve a constituency. In sum, this branch exists to make laws.

There is also the Executive Branch. These are people that the legislative branch elects, including the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, in turn, appoints cabinet ministers that take care of various government departments, for example, the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This branch exists to enforce laws.

Lastly, there is the Judicial Branch. These are people who, in theory, independently dispense justice in the country, through the laws written by and voted on by the legislative and executive branches. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, High Courts, and City Courts are all part of this branch.

In many countries, the military plays a significant direct or indirect role in government. This is not a reality that is specific or unique to Pakistan - just in the past few weeks, events around the world, from Myanmar to Honduras to Zimbabwe, show a glimpse of the vast power that militaries have gained in developing countries around the world. Even developed countries like the United States are not shielded from the military, or the military industrial complex, but that’s a different discussion.

The chart below shows all the different branches and sub-branches of the government.

The journey of a single vote

All of this is bit too big-picture, so let’s bring it back to you. You will be casting a vote for someone in a few months. Here is how that process works:

You will cast a vote (typically multiple ballots for national and provincial seats) within your designated area or constituency. Your vote and others will be tallied and whoever receives the highest number of votes in your constituency will secure a place in the respective legislative bodies.

Pakistan’s system is not unusual, but it is not the only way the electoral process works. In many countries, just getting more votes than other candidates is not enough. For example, the parliament in Papua New Guinea is elected in a system where voters rank three preferred candidates and if no candidate gets the majority vote, that is 51% of votes, candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes are transferred to the next candidate that the voter preferred.

Strength in numbers

Going back to Pakistani legislative bodies, let’s talk about the National Assembly first. The entire country is currently divided into 272 constituencies/general seats, and one candidate is elected for a seat in the National Assembly. The number of general seats started at 210 in 1974, and has been revised as the population grew. This was last done in 2002 based on the 1998 census data. The political parties have decided not to increase the number of seats for the 2018 election as a result of the 2017 census, but instead to redistribute the 272 seats among the provinces based on the provisional results of the census.

These seats are supposed to represent an equal number of people in each constituency, which is essential to the principles of a representative democracy, where each person has an equal vote. This was not the case in 2013, when for example, one constituency had less than 100,000 voters and one had more than 500,000. For the 2018 election, the Electoral Commission plans to use 2017 census data to redraw the boundaries of the constituencies, so there is a more equal distribution of voters. Given that there are more than 97 million voters as of October 2017, there should be about 360,000 voters per constituency for the 2018 election.

The idea that each person should have an equal vote is also not the case everywhere. For example, in the United States, the people elect two senators for each of their fifty states, regardless of the population within a state.

The final count

Coming back to Pakistan, there are 272 constituencies - but 342 seats in the National Assembly. The other 70 seats, reserved for non-Muslims (10) and women (60), are proportionally allocated to parties based on how many seats they won out of the 272. The last adjustment was made to that number in 2010 as part of the Eighteenth Amendment, when the 25 extra technocrat seats (from the 2002 order) were removed.

Each constituency is within a province of Pakistan. Because provinces represent specific ethnicities and policy decisions, deciding on the division of the population within constituencies and number of constituencies in each province is pretty important.

Punjab is the most populous province and Balochistan the least populous (but largest in land size). There are:

  • 148 constituencies in Punjab

  • 61 constituencies in Sindh

  • 35 constituencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

  • 14 constituencies in Balochistan

  • 12 constituencies in FATA

  • 2 constituencies Islamabad

Over the next few months, we will be publishing writeups and sharing data analyses on a number of topics pertinent to the upcoming elections. To stay updated sign up for our mailing list here.

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