Pakistan has universal adult suffrage, and those 18 years of age and older are eligible to vote. As of early 2005, there were 72 million registered voters. The minimum age of candidates is 25 years of age for national and provincial assemblies, 30 for the Senate, and 45 for president. The president sets election dates, and the Election Commission (EC) conducts national and provincial assembly elections, but the EC’s chair, the chief election commissioner, oversees elections for local governments, the Senate, and the presidency. The EC is an independent, financially autonomous body, but it has been criticized as having little power to enforce codes of conduct on political parties and candidates. Constituencies are demarcated by population, administrative boundaries, and other factors. In 2002 there were 357 constituencies for the National Assembly and 728 constituencies for provincial assemblies. Sixty seats in the National Assembly and 128 in the provincial assemblies are reserved for women. In addition, 10 seats in the National Assembly and 23 in the provincial assemblies are reserved for non-Muslims. In April 2002, Musharraf’s term as president was extended for five years in a national referendum. Elections were held for the national and provincial assemblies in October 2002 and for the Senate in February 2003. However, domestic and international observers have criticized these and earlier elections as flawed. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005]

Elections: 1) President indirectly elected by the Electoral College consisting of members of the Senate, National Assembly, and provincial assemblies for a 5-year term (limited to 2 consecutive terms); election last held on 4 September 2018 (next to be held in 2023); 2) prime minister elected by the National Assembly on 17 August 2018. Election results: Arif ALVI elected president; Electoral College vote — Arif ALVI (PTI) 352, Fazl-ur-REHMAN (MMA) 184, Aitzaz AHSAN (PPP) 124; Imran KHAN elected prime minister; National Assembly vote — Imran KHAN (PTI) 176, Shehbaz SHARIF (PML-N) 96 [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

The Senate is made up of 104 members, who are indirectly elected by the four provincial assemblies and the territories' representatives by proportional representation vote. Members serve six-year terms with one-half of the membership renewed every three years. The last election was held on March 3, 2018 (next to be held in March 2021)

National Assembly has 342 seats. Of these 272 members are directly elected in single-seat constituencies by simple majority vote and 70 members — 60 women and 10 non-Muslims — are directly elected by proportional representation vote. All members serve five -year terms). The last election was held on July 25, 2018 (next to be held on 25 July 2023)

Under Pakistan's political system, the winning candidate is usually the one who receives the most votes. Getting a majority is usually not necessary. This means that someone can win with a s little as 30 percent of the vote if there are a lot of candidates. Traditionally, after a candidate won an election in Pakistan he or she paraded through the streets garlanded in roses and marigolds.

Election Results in Pakistan

Prime Minister Imran Khan in office since August 2018. He was elected by the National Assembly on August 17, 2018 after his party did well in general elections. National Assembly vote — Imran Khan (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI party) 176, Shehbaz Sharif (Pakistan Muslim League (N), PML-N party): 96. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

President Arif Alvi in office since September 2018). Election results: Electoral College vote: Arif Alvi (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI party, Imran Khan’s party): 352, Fazl-ur-Rehman (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal MMA, conservative Islamist party) 184, Aitzaz Ahsan (N8's Party of Pakistan, PPP): 124.

Senate: seats by party as of December 2019: Pakistan People's Party (PPP) 19 seats; Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) 16 seats; Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI): 14 seats; MQM-P 5 seats; JUI-F 4 seats; BAP 2 seats; Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI), an Islamic party: 2 seats; PkMAP 2 seats; ANP 1 seats; BNP 1 seats; PML-F 1 seats; other 7 seats; independent 30

National Assembly: seats by party as of December 2019: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) 156 seats; Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) 84 seats; Pakistan People's Party (PPP) 55 seats; MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, conservative Islamist party): 16 seats; MQM-P 7 seats; BAP 5 seats; PML-Q 5 seats; BNP 4 seats; GDA 3 seats; AML 1 seats; ANP 1 seats; JWP 1 seats; independent 4

Voting in Pakistan

Legal voting age in Pakistan : 18 (compared to 16 in Ethiopia and Austria and 25 in United Arab Emirates, most country are 18). Suffrage is universal. There are joint electorates and reserved parliamentary seats for women and non-Muslims. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Voter turnout for parliamentary elections in Pakistan: 50.1 percent in 2018; 53.6 percent in 2013; and 35.2 percent in 1997. [Source: President IDEA idea.int ]

In 2002 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, enlarging the electorate to 72 million people. To vote voters need to show their identity card and afterwards a finger is inked so they will not vote again.

Armed guards are posted outside polling stations on elections day. There are over 100,000 polling station and they have been set up in schools, factories, government offices, shopping centers, markets, hotels, airports, gasoline stations, bus and train stations.

Vote Rigging in Pakistan

Hasan Muhammad wrote in Dawn.com: The term ‘rigging of elections’ is defined as ‘rival candidates’ ability to cast bogus votes’ and getting away with it by winning an election. As for how rigging is played out in Pakistan, mechanisms have been changing with times. Presently, it has taken the shape of ‘corporate rigging’, which includes pre-poll rigging, rigging during the election period and on polling day and post-election rigging. [Source: Hasan Muhammad, Dawn.com, May 8, 2013; The author is a former secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan (2001-2004). He has also written a book titled 'General Election in Pakistan: Some Untold Stories and Personal Experiences'.]

For the 2013 “general elections, the mechanism of ‘pre-poll rigging’ has included showering of jobs in bulk by the federal and provincial governments to supporters and voters, doling out millions of rupees to selected constituencies under the garb of development schemes and skillful manoeuvring of caretaker governments. Lawmakers’ apparent delaying (or blocking) to consider the Election Commission’s ‘Reform Package’ can also be viewed as pre-poll rigging.

“‘Post-election rigging’ would include upsetting the Election Commission’s power under Section 103-AA of Representation of the People Act, 1976, of declaring polls void in constituencies where ‘grave irregularities’ take place, causing delays in timely disposal of writ petitions of agrieved parties, blocking punitive action against elected members for exceeding expenses’ limits, corrupt practices, etc.

“For the coming 2013 general elections, the empowered Election Commission has worked with the Agenda of Electoral Reforms, which included new electoral rolls prepared by the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) with CNIC numbers and photographs, revised nomination forms, use of online data from the Federal Board of Revenue, State Bank of Pakistan, National Accountability Bureau, etc. On the other hand, shrewd candidates, who have always proved their cunning in devising new methods of rigging, are likely to use most of the tactics previously explored. It is now to be seen how far the Election Commission would be able to combat innovative ‘corporate rigging’ and ensure free, fair and transparent elections in the country.”

History of Vote Rigging in Pakistan

Hasan Muhammad wrote in Dawn.com: “Election rigging is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan and has been observed throughout in one form or another, whether it is local bodies’ elections, National Assembly elections or polls for provincial assemblies. The practice started in the 1950s when staggered polls of provincial assemblies were held in Punjab, North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Sindh, Balochistan and the then East Pakistan. The blatant rigging of these elections was vociferously criticised by the public. The protests and uproar in the press were so loud that Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, who was prime minister at the time, had to stress that democracy could not be established in the country if free and fair elections were not held. He then set up the Electoral Reforms Commission in 1955, the recommendations of which were implemented in elections held thereafter. However, later, new methods were employed to rig elections. [Source: Hasan Muhammad, Dawn.com, May 8, 2013]

“Between 1951 and 1954, the techniques employed for rigging were simpler; for example, registration of bogus votes, rejection of nomination papers on flimsy grounds, voting under coercion and inducements, surreptitiously or forcefully opening and stuffing or tampering of ballot boxes and harassing of opponents or throwing them behind bars. Then there was the1958 Martial Law and indirect elections of assemblies in 1962 and 1965 during which it was easy to manage members from East Pakistan through deputy commissioners.

“The general elections 1970 were relatively fair but there were allegations of ‘capturing of polling stations’ by Awami League workers in some parts of East Pakistan. In the Pakistan Peoples Party’s regime, the election cell working under Hayat Tamman devised an elaborate plan and patently rigged the March 1977 general elections. This led to nationwide protests by the Pakistan National Alliance. Consequently, there was General Ziaul Haq’s Martial Law of July 1977 which led to an eight-year-long interregnum before another election could take place. Zia’s 1985 party-less general elections were won by affluent candidates who spent exorbitant amounts of money on their campaigns. Historically speaking, that set a permanent ‘role of money in elections.’

“In the 1990s, besides the covert role of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), other tactics were employed to cast bogus votes by using patwarees, police officers, money, pressure tactics, enticement of voters, providing of transport to voters, using ‘muscle power’ of local gangsters to harass opponents’ polling agents, intimidation of opponents’ voters to keep them away from polling stations, capturing of polling stations and tampering of results at the stations.

“All these tactics were practised in the 2000-2001 local government elections as well as in the 2002 general elections. In 2008 general elections, things allegedly happened under influence from the United States as well as through names of millions of bogus voters in the electoral rolls along with the classic tactics of rigging.”

Campaigning in Pakistan

“John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Voters here expect to see their politicians in person, waving from limousines and giving fiery speeches as onlookers snap photos with cellphones. “Before you vote for somebody, you must shake their hand and look closely at their face,” said resident Masroor Ghani as he arrived at the Lalamusa rally. “How else can you judge them?” [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2008]

“Experts say new restrictions on the media have left politicians little choice but to hit the streets. “The stations where people listen for their political discourse are shut down,” said C. Christine Fair, a Rand Corp. political analyst who specializes in South Asia. “The press is gagged. The only way to reach voters before the elections is through the rallies, which makes politicians vulnerable.”

“The former federal minister for information, famous for bombastic speeches and affairs with Pakistani film stars, now invites political contacts to visit him in an ornate political center with arabesque towers. His public appearances are unannounced and unscripted, to avoid creating patterns that could make him vulnerable to attack.

“Standing before an oversized poster of the slain Bhutto, Babar Awan works the crowd in Lalamusa. “Pakistan has no future except for democracy. Do you reject Musharraf and his dark forces of dictatorship?” he asks. “Yes,” some men roar, thrusting fists into the air. “Will you fight for democracy?” “Yes!” The way to avenge Bhutto’s death, he urges, is to support her Pakistan People’s Party. The name Bhutto defines all Pakistanis, Awan shouts, not just a family. The crowd breaks into a chant. “Bhutto is alive!” the men shout, rising to their feet. “Bhutto is alive!”

“After his speech, Awan is swallowed by the crowd, then makes his way toward the black Land Cruiser. The soldiers stand on the sidelines, leaving responsibility for Awan’s safety to the private guards he calls “my boys.” He stands atop the vehicle’s running board, then climbs inside, people reaching for him through the open window. The engine starts. And then he is gone.

Election Violence in Pakistan

More than 100 people were killed in election-related violence, most by Taliban bombings, during elections in 2013. In Karachi, according to Reuters, a traditional way of campaigning is to show up at the scene of a bombing and offer financial help. [Source: Insiya Syed, Reuters, May 9, 2013]

“John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: This is Pakistan, a perilous realm of suicide bombings and social unrest where politicians are targets.” After Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, “Bhutto’s allies suspect government involvement in her killing. Pakistani officials blame Taliban extremists based in border areas near Afghanistan. “Since the attack,” Democracy Pervez “Musharraf has banned large rallies, saying he wants to protect candidates. But many politicians have ignored the law — because, they say, Pakistanis demand it.For many politicians, menace comes via bomb threats and text messages warning that they could be kidnapped or killed at any time. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2008]

“In the southeastern province of Sindh, opposition candidates have been jailed, sending others into hiding, officials say. One candidate in the east-central province of Punjab was ambushed a few years ago. Shot in the face, he has a plastic jaw. But this year he’s running for office again.” In Karachi “gunmen killed a senior official of the Awami National Party, a secular group representing Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority. Days earlier, a man on a motorcycle sprayed gunfire at a rally of about 100 supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party, wounding one person. Former Cabinet minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a National Assembly candidate from Rawalpindi, said political rallies nonetheless are a fact of life. “If I’m too afraid to campaign but my opponent is out there meeting the people, what kind of message does that send?” he said.

“Not even Pakistan’s president is immune from attack. Since he seized power in 1999 in a military coup, Musharraf has escaped at least four assassination bids, all believed masterminded by Islamic militants. Two of the attempts, in the form of bombs aimed at his convoy, took place 11 days apart, in December 2003. In October 2006 a bomb went off in a park near his residence. Last year, shots were fired at his plane as it took off from an air base.

“In the murky world of Pakistani politics, experts say, attacks on public figures could come from tribal warlords, Islamic militants, Taliban extremists — or state security forces. Musharraf allies say they are targeted by religious extremists who oppose Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States in Washington’s declared “war on terror.” Opposition candidates say they face attacks not only from militants looking to cause chaos, but from elements within the government. Pakistani officials blame Bhutto’s killing on Baitullah Mahsud, a tribal leader in northwest Pakistan with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mahsud has denied involvement.

“Experts say this election is the nation’s most perilous in years, although there are no statistics kept of campaign-related violence. “Pakistan is very, very dangerous now for politicians,” said Aasiya Riaz, joint director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. “Before an election, you expect to see action. But it’s eerily quiet. Nobody knows where the bullet is coming from. Or when.”

Campaigning Amid Election Violence in Pakistan

Reporting from Lalamusa, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Riding in his chauffeured Land Cruiser, Babar Awan is on a mission many consider almost suicidal: He’s a politician stumping on one of the world’s deadliest campaign trails. Weeks before the February 18 parliamentary elections, the veteran lawmaker is canvassing in this northern Pakistani town where goats wander the streets and residents remain fiercely loyal to President Pervez Musharraf. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2008]

“Awan knows he’s in enemy territory. In late December, his party’s leader, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated after an open-air election rally in Rawalpindi, another Musharraf stronghold not far away. Awan is nervous, and he has brought armed guards. But as Bhutto did before her death, opposition candidates such as Awan say Musharraf has refused to provide them adequate protection, forcing them to rely on private security and hope for the best.

“On a rainy day, the soldiers guarding Ahmed’s headquarters in downtown Rawalpindi shiver before a campfire. One leans against a concrete wall erected after Bhutto’s death. Inside, Ahmed, who is with Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League-Q faction, complains that he feels trapped inside his bunker. His campaign once advertised his public appearances. Not any more. When he ventures out, he fears traffic jams, where “I can be cornered,” he says. And in Islamabad, the national capital, one day, his cellphone rang with a taunting message. “The caller said I was lucky I had crossed this street unharmed,” he said. “He wanted me to know he knew where I was.”

“At 54, after numerous campaigns, Ahmed says he may step down from public life after this election....He he doesn’t blame Bhutto for standing through her vehicle’s sunroof on the day she was killed. “You can’t sit inside and wave — people won’t allow it,” he said. “You have to open the door and open the window. Whatever happens, will happen.”

“Awan, a dark-eyed lawyer with a pencil mustache, enters a walled park flanked by a dozen security guards. At the gate, he brushes past a few government-assigned soldiers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. They look away, as if to show disdain for their assignment of safeguarding the president’s political rivals.

“The tension is palpable. Men with woolen scarves around their shoulders flinch at the blast of a car horn. Slipping through the all-male crowd at this political rally, an event where women typically are not welcome, Awan tries to appear unruffled. Some say Awan could succeed Bhutto to lead the Pakistan People’s Party as its candidate for prime minister if it wins enough seats to try to form a government. Awan, 54, says that if asked, he would accept the challenge. He’d do it for the slain Bhutto, an old friend. Such risks are now part of the political landscape, he says. “I know I could be killed,” he said. “Being a politician in Pakistan today is like sitting on top of a powder keg.”

“Far back in the throng, supporter Ansar Shahwan trembles: He fears for Awan’s life. “I am counting the name of Allah on my fingers,” said Shahwan, dressed in the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez, a tunic and loose pants. “Please save this man. He has stood up to lead us. But I am afraid now they are going to take him away from us.”

Where Are the Women Voters in Pakistan?

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob wrote in Dawn: As far as women voters are concerned, two issues stand out both in terms of their importance and urgency. First is the registration of women voters. According to the last census held in 1998, the female population constituted 48 percent of the total population. The latest figures of registered voters released by the Election Commission of Pakistan last month, indicate that Pakistan has a total of around 97 million registered voters of which women voters are around 42.42 million which translates to a little less than 44 percent of the total number of voters. [Source: Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, Dawn, January 10, 2017. Mehboob is president of Pildat — a public policy think tank of Pakistan]

“Using the 1998 census composition, there should have been 48 percent women registered voters, which corresponds to 46.58 million and which means that around 4.16 million women have not been able to find their way to the voters list. Unfortunately, there has always been a gap between the number of women qualified to vote and the number of registered women voters. In the controversial electoral rolls for the 2002 general election, women voters constituted 46.11 percent of the total registered voters. This percentage went further down in the 2008 electoral rolls when registered women voters constituted about 44 percent of the electoral rolls. The percentage of registered women voters improved to 46.62 percent just before the 2013 general election. Sadly, the latest ECP figures indicate a significant dip in registered women voters to 43.73 percent of the total registered voters.

“Over a period of time and especially since the 2013 election, the registration of women voters should have improved but alarmingly this percentage has further gone down in the latest tally. The current percentage (43.73 percent) of registered women voters compares very unfavourably with the percentage of registered women voters in India which is 47.78 percent according to their 2016 electoral rolls.

“Registration is the first step before women can actually vote in the next election. Although the 2015 local government election indicated some encouraging trends in women voting, there are signs of the continuing illegal and deplorable practice of stopping or discouraging women voters from exercising their right to vote in some constituencies especially during elections for members of the national and provincial assemblies. Some days ago, this paper carried a disturbing story that 17 National Assembly constituencies saw less than 5 percent women voters actually casting their votes during the last general election in 2013. Three of these constituencies lie in Fata where special circumstances including terrorist activities have disturbed the area over the past many years. Some other constituencies had experienced an overall low voter turnout, eg NA-152, where male voter turnout was a mere 2.13 percent.

“However, some of these constituencies have repeatedly shown a tendency of women being barred from voting and therefore it is important to focus on them. Two National Assembly constituencies in Upper and Lower Dir fall under this category. The ECP can hold special consultations with the political parties and the current elected representatives of these constituencies to persuade them to cooperate with the ECP in ensuring unhindered voting by women voters.

“Our natural reaction to any such violation is to come up with a new law instead of going for a more effective but probably more challenging route of enforcing the existing laws. There already exists a law (Representation of the People Act, 1976; Section 81 ‘Undue Influence’) which makes it an offence to “compel any person to vote or refrain from voting” but despite overwhelming evidence, such as the written and widely publicised agreements of local political leaders on legal stamped papers, that women are not allowed to vote, the ECP or the local administration has hardly taken action against these political leaders. Instead, the ECP is contemplating a law which will automatically make the election void in a constituency where the turnout of women voters is less than a certain threshold, say 10pc.

“Apparently, this proposed law may not only prove ineffective, it could also be unfair. After all, there are several constituencies where overall voter turnout is less than 10pc. In fact, a number of National Assembly constituencies are identified in the same report carried by this newspaper where the male voter turnout is less than female voter turn-out. It will be far more effective if the ECP rigorously applies the existing laws and makes an example out of those who stop others from voting.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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