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In Pakistan, women politicians struggle for nominations to men’s seats

Experts discuss why women are not considered electables

SAMAA | - Posted: Mar 11, 2021 | Last Updated: 7 months ago
Editing & Writing | Usman Shahid
Posted: Mar 11, 2021 | Last Updated: 7 months ago

Artwork: Samaa Digital

After the Senate Election, held on March 3, PTI’s Faisal Javed Khan tweeted about alleged horse-trading on the men’s seat. His tweet got attention, not because of the accusations but because people pointed out that there is no men’s seat. He called the general seat that.

He deleted the tweeted, but according to Sarah Khan, an assistant professor of Political Science at Yale University, Khan just said the quiet part out loud.

Sarah Khan discussed her chapter from Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving between Dictatorship and Democracy at a webinar organised by LUMS. The book is an extensive examination of Pakistan’s evolution from dictatorships to democracy and the dynamics of political parties within the way society functions. The webinar featured authors Dr. Mariam Mufti, Dr. Asad Liaqat and was moderated by Dr Umair Javed.

Umair said it is important to study political parties because they:

  • Help structure political world for aspiring politicians and citizens
  • Represent interests
  • Play key role in policy formation and governance issues
  • Influence political inclusion

Sarah expounded on the role of women in Pakistan’s electoral politics. Her chapter in Pakistan’s Political Parties discusses the systematic marginalisation of women in politics, drawing on different sources of administrative data and surveys, as well as the quality and health of democracy and why half of the population is excluded from electoral contest and competition.

“It will provide an organising framework helpful for scholars and policy-makers to think about the various channels and how they interact to perpetuate this exclusion,” said Sarah. “I’ll highlight the role of parties, institutions, voters and families.”

She also explained the rule of two paths towards women’s representation: quotas or reserved seats and dynastic connections.

Persisting gender gaps in voting turnout

“My past work has focused on persisting gender gaps in voting turnout in Pakistan over the course of multiple elections,” she said.

Sarah, along with Dr Ali Cheema, Dr Shandnana Khan Mohmand and Dr Asad Liaqat, conducted a survey involving 2,500 households in Lahore prior to the 2018 general elections. About 90% of respondents agreed that it is appropriate for women to cast vote. But when it comes to discussing politics in homes, 70% men and 80% women think it is inappropriate. Women standing for elections or contributing to them as party workers was endorsed by only 35% men and 60% women, thinking it is an inappropriate act to engage in.

“We can say there’s relative agreement that it’s acceptable and even important for women to vote, but less acceptable for them to have open an independent opinion about who to vote for or to stand as candidate or party workers.”

In increasingly competitive elections, parties need women’s votes, but they have little to no incentive to nominate women as candidates or to recruit them in party networks as workers. Across parties that draw support from different social groups with different ideological commitments, there is one remarkable similarity: proportion of women that parties nominate to general seats for provincial and national assemblies. In 2018, women accounted for 5% to 7% of any given party’s candidate pool, and this 5% was a requirement instituted in the 2017 Election Act for the first time.

Parties’ increasing reliance in electables

“Women are risky bet for political parties,” said Sarah. “They are not perceived as electables, which makes them risky and that’s also where voters enter the picture. A nationally representative survey shows more than 70% Pakistanis think men make better leaders than women. This risk is exacerbated in a first-past-the-post and winner-take-all electoral systems.

“Comparisons show that women are more likely to be nominated and elected in a democracy with proportional rather than majoritarian representation,” Sarah said. Even within majoritarian system of representation, this exclusion is exacerbated by high levels of competition. Increased competitiveness is a feature that contributes to women’s marginalisation. The more competitive an election, the riskier it is for political parties to run with a candidate with an uncertainty about their electability.

Quota system and dynastic connections

“The persisting solution to this systematic under-representation for women has been quotas,” Sarah said. Pakistan’s quotas may correct women’s under-representation by adding on seats in the assemblies where women are indirectly elected in proportion to seats directly won by parties in general elections, but for years, women’s rights activists and groups have been pointing out how this design deprives women of connections to a constituency and that it fails to achieve the ultimate goal of quotas. “They should be redundant,” Sarah remarked.

The design also betrays the unwillingness to see the problem as just one of women’s under-representation rather than of men’s over-representation in a democratic body. If this problem is framed as men’s over-representation, the solution would be to reserve a proportion of general seats or a rule for parties to allocate equal ticket for men and women candidates. Sarah mentioned a sitting senator (Faisal Javed Khan) who referred to a general senate seat from Islamabad as the “men’s seat”.

“I don’t want to single him out because he just said the quiet part out loud,” she remarked.

Various authors in the book have referred to the prevalence of dynastic candidates in Pakistan’s political landscape.

“I want to highlight the dynastic linkages provide an advantage,” Sarah said.

In 2008, more than one-third of men contesting male candidates for national and provincial assemblies were those who had political family connections. For women candidates, this proportion was 70%. This has only magnified those who are elected because such connections provide an electoral advantage to winning, Sarah said, adding that the dynastic label is often used to discredit women who come into power. She also raised the question why these dynastic and familial connections are necessary for women’s entry into politics than they are for men.

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