February issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

Throughout Pakistan’s history, elections have long been marred by a wide spectrum of malpractices, ranging from vote-buying to murder. In her new book Electoral Malpractices: During the 2008 Elections in Pakistan, Iffat Humayun Khan charts the progression and escalation of such electoral malpractices, from the first election in Pakistan in 1950 to the most recent 2008 elections. Drawing upon other researchers’ work, she explores the causes of electoral malpractices and analyses the extent to which these malpractices have prevented the emergence of an egalitarian society in Pakistan.

Defining electoral malpractices is a complex process due to the differences in the electoral systems of various countries, and many researchers hesitate to explore this area. However, Khan spends a considerable portion of the book carefully defining the term and putting it in the context of Pakistan’s politics. She argues that electoral corruption varies under different types of regimes. For instance, in semi-competitive authoritarian systems, such as the regimes of Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, elections are usually permitted at the local level but avoided or largely manipulated at the national level. All of these military rulers denied the opposition free access to the media, space for public gatherings and prevented its political campaigns. This, she explains, is a form of electoral malpractice.

Furthermore, Khan draws upon several other researchers’ work to explore why electoral malpractice occurs in general. One interesting perspective on this is provided by Joel D. Barkan, in reference to agrarian societies. He notes that in an agrarian society such as Pakistan, elections are perceived as “winner-take-all” affairs, with losing being equated to being totally shut off from the distribution of the state’s resources, such as social welfare services. This is why rigging often occurs, and even if it doesn’t, the losers allege that it has occurred because they cannot accept defeat. The book also explains the different aspects of politics which all determine whether an election will be manipulated, and to what extent. The key players in Pakistani politics are politicians, landlords, industrialists, bureaucrats and the army, and Khan elaborates on how each of these key players might benefit from manipulating an election.

Khan has employed the use of tables and charts to illustrate in detail the kind of electoral malpractice that has occurred in each phase of the elections which have been held in Pakistan since 1950. She delves deeply into the possible causes of these malpractices, and what the manipulators of the elections may have gained by such actions. In doing so, she draws a clear picture of the entire electoral process as well as the political landscape of Pakistan throughout history. The fact that no nationwide elections based on universal suffrage were held in the first 23 years of Pakistan’s existence, and that the two which were held (in 1970 and 1977) both led to intense turmoil in the country, shows how far Pakistani society needs to go in order to become a truly democratic nation.

Khan’s book is written in a purely academic fashion and therefore might prove to be too dry for the layman. However, it is a well-researched and thorough book which sheds some much-needed light on the state of Pakistan’s electoral process. It highlights the different facets of an election and gives a clear picture of each characteristic of electoral malpractice and, for this reason, this book should be useful not only to experts on Pakistan’s politics, but also to those who wish to acquaint themselves with the political and electoral process of Pakistan.

This review was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “How to Rig an Election.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.