The surge in South Asian voter numbers complicate elections and regional democracy
The electoral demographics and democratic dynamics in South Asia are changing fundamentally. A rapidly increasing younger voter base’s electoral choices and ideas about democracy are shifting from traditional approaches on participation in politics, to greater polarization around shared issues that threaten diversity and pluralism in representation in the power matrix.
Over 20 million new voters are on Pakistan’s national voter registry for national elections scheduled in late January 2024. The total is now 127 million voters registered by the Election Commission of Pakistan by the end of last month. This is nearly 20 percent up from the polls in 2018 when 2.1 million new voters were added – a similar percentage from the preceding elections in 2013. In short, Pakistan’s voter base has staggeringly gone up one-thirds in ten years.
A similar phenomenon is evident across most of South Asia where national elections are due within months in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, after Pakistan. The Maldives held its national elections last month. The number of voters has increased in India by almost 45 million since its 2019 polls to nearly 955 million now – an increase of around five percent. Bangladesh has increased its voters from 109 million in 2018 elections to 119 million now. Sri Lanka had 16 million registered voters in its 2020 elections – they are now over 18 million.
Over 1.2 billion registered voters – around 10 percent first time voters and an estimated 300 million voters under 30 years – will be eligible to vote in South Asia over the next several months – the largest electoral exercise in any continent by far, including the rest of Asia. This will have implications that will govern the fate of one-fifth of humanity.
Are Pakistan and its neighbors equipped to conduct rapidly scaled-up electoral exercises? In Pakistan, some muffled messages coming from its Election Commission indicate that the administrative and logistical scaling of managing elections is becoming an issue of concern. Over one million presiding officers alone will be required to man voting stations in the January elections – up in size by a fourth from the previous exercise five years ago. Security, finances and other logistics add to the complexity..
Pakistan’s voter base has staggeringly gone up one-thirds in ten years.
Inadequately managed elections could blow up as dissatisfaction with results and create large scale disturbances – a routine outcome in Pakistan already and with political polarization in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also high. With elections due in these countries, this is a challenge for the whole region and could impact adversely in various ways on the quality of democracy in the region.
Beyond challenges related to the management of elections, the politics of a rapidly younger and urban voter base is also throwing unexpected political curveballs. Expanding use of online spaces for social discourse is caricaturizing politics, devaluing issue-based and rights-based politics and promoting oversimplification of electoral choices by pandering to authoritarian and xenophobic narratives that are reducing electoral politics to black and white choices.
The accumulative effect of this is detrimental to diversity and pluralism that is the bedrock of democracy. The space for left-of-center and even centrist political parties is shrinking and muscly right-of-center parties are finding greater appeal for their oversimplistic political rhetoric fixated on harsh demonization of their political rivals. Some examples include Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf of Imran Khan and Pakistan Muslim League-N of Nawaz Sharif, Bharatiya Janata Party of Narendra Modi and Awami League of Sheikh Hasina Wajid.
These parties exercise discourses intolerant of dissent and dismissive of inclusivity and when in power in this century have used state apparatuses to crack down on rivals and used heightened religious and patriotic rhetoric, as well as employing hate speech, to brand political opponents as traitorous, often putting them in jail. In this sense the net outcome is, ironically, degradation of democracy and strengthening of authoritarianism.
It’s also worrisome that most of such parties have been in power for long stretches now and are incentivizing themselves into suppressing opposition as an instrument of coercive domination – thereby deepening majoritarianism that doubles up as authoritarianism. There is danger of the younger voters increasing in their tens of millions every year in the regions now experiencing only hate speech as the lens by which to make political choices.
What can be done to ensure that more voters mean not less democracy but more converts to pluralist societies and strengthened participatory democracy in South Asia?
At one level this needs to be approached in management terms – the election commissions of South Asian democracies need to create a mutual learning and support forum that can offer best practices at ensuring well managed elections help retain trust in democracy. At another level, this needs to be tackled politically – a regional forum of all political parties that have been in power in the 21st century in the region should be established to promote an agenda of democratic pluralism, participatory politics and best practices on converting growing numbers of voters and their trust in democracy into effective and productive governance and a people-centric regional polity.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.