According to Daily Times editorial comment: The caretaker interior minister, General (Retd) Hamid Nawaz Khan, says all key politicians are under threat from the terrorists. In Sindh, "sensitive" polling stations have reportedly gone up from 3,000 in 2002 to 5,000 in 2008, which means that violence can occur there on the day of elections. Then the entire NWFP is under threat because the terrorists don't want the political parties to take part in the polls. In Balochistan, the JUIF has said it will pull out its voters but the other more radical ethnic-based parties say they will stay away and strengthen the hostile environment against those who will participate.
Punjab, however, is where the big battle for "democracy" will be fought. The province makes up 55 percent of the seats in the National Assembly where the sovereignty of the state truly resides. Sindh sends 25 percent of the people to the National Assembly, while the NWFP sends 15 and Balochistan only 5 percent. In Punjab 55 percent of the vote is said to be traditionally pro Muslim League (now divided) while 25 percent belongs to the PPP alone. In all, around 80 percent belongs to the mainstream parties that are now determined to take part in the February 18 elections. But the leaders of these parties are under threat from terrorism, according to the caretaker government.
This creates a problem that may strike at the root of the perennial crisis of turnout during elections in the past years. So far the reason for the turnout falling below 35 percent was apathy, disappointment and the diversion of the people's interest to other modes of revolutionary or non-democratic governance. This tendency was prevented from becoming a widespread phenomenon by the politicians who began to transport their voters. This means that after the politician has spent a lot of money persuading the electorate to vote for him he has to spend more on transporting the voters to the polling station. No surprise then that expenditure on electoral campaigning has climbed steeply in recent years.
Add to this the factor of fear. The PPP has already been targeted a number of times and its top leader has been killed. In Karachi and in Rawalpindi a number of the PPP's supporters too have died. After the assassination of Ms Bhutto, extreme violence has erupted in Sindh and Punjab in which people have died and public and private property has been extensively damaged. Inter-party accusations have followed the disturbances and there is a fear that the memory of what happened after December 27 may bring the possibility of violence close to the surface and this may persuade the "normal" voter to stay away from the polling stations.
After Ms Bhutto, the leader of the PMLN Mr Nawaz Sharif too has come under threat from the terrorists, which makes it clear that the targeting is not based on the yardstick of who speaks against the terrorists but who takes part in elections. Mr Sharif has teetered on the edge of boycotting the polls, which would have made him safe from the mischief of the terrorists, but has repeatedly reverted to the decision to take part. It appears that he was right in his decision because the mood of the traditional PML voter is swinging once again in his party's favour. The election campaigning has not been very enthusiastic and the leaders have seemed reluctant to expose themselves too much to the people.
And now comes the biggest disincentive. The politicians have used up a lot of decibels and the journalists have spilled a lot of ink to warn the voters that the elections will be rigged, and that there are ghost polling station where they will never be able to go and vote. They have been told quite credibly that pre-rigging has either already taken their right away from them or has bought their leaders to the other side of the political divide. Many voters for instance have expressed their disgust at the way their leaders were "persuaded" to switch parties in 2002. The scandal of rigging may simply turn off the voters and bring the turnout down.
The average turnout over the past many "premature" elections has been 40 percent of the listed voters. One can say that this is the benchmark one should watch for legitimacy. Then one thinks of the global trend of fewer and fewer voters coming out on the polling day and one is inclined to bring the benchmark down to 30 percent. Lower than that, one would think, would force the observers to think if the elections were worth the expense when the people simply didn't want to vote.
If the turnout for the 2008 elections is about 25 percent, this would be construed as dangerously low for the purpose of legitimacy. One can be sure that the terrorists know this and will be planning to delegitimise the elections. The only way to triumph over the terrorists is for all citizens to come out and vote come what may.