Flood Devastation and Electoral Challenges

by Naseer Memon

The effects of the unprecedented floods of 2022 are not confined to the loss of life, assets and livelihood. Little attention has been paid to understanding how the deluge’s after-effects can disenfranchise a large population if not addressed immediately.

Pakistan’s next general elections are scheduled in February 2024. The ECP, political parties and media are preoccupied with making arrangements in their respective domains. However, voting participation in the flood-affected areas is not being focused on.

During a recent interaction with voters in the flood-ravaged districts of Sindh and Balochistan, some critical challenges, which can blight voter turnout, came to the fore.

Literature shows that similar challenges have been faced by many other countries. A report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has identified 28 cases in which natural hazards impacted national and subnational elections in 19 countries from all regions of the world.

Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in May 2019. Some 85,000 people lost their homes and were displaced. People lost their identity cards and voter registration cards. The cyclone also impacted the infrastructure, causing areas to become inaccessible, complicating electoral preparations and operations.

In March 2011, a strong earthquake jolted Japan, triggering a disastrous tsunami that killed over 15,000 and displaced countless. Elections took place in April 2011. The catastrophe made voter registration difficult. Information on candidates was not widely available for voters.

Some voters who were displaced and had to go to new areas did not replace their resident cards and were unable to vote. The unviability of polling stations deprived a large number from casting their vote.

Turkey’s devastating earthquake in February this year made arrangements for polls in May a nightmare. The Supreme Election Council of Turkey developed hundreds of special polling stations in tents or containers to replace destroyed polling stations.

Citizens who lost their identification documents to vote were provided with temporary documentation. Despite these contingency measures, many were sceptical about the validity of voter registration and voters’ lists.

Pakistan’s floods have created similar challenges for the authorities. In the worst flood-affected districts of Sindh and Balochistan, thousands of homes collapsed, dislodging a large population and burying their belongings.

Grabbing CNICs could not be a priority for those who barely escaped with their lives. Casting one’s vote is contingent upon proving one’s identity through the CNIC.

Replacement of the lost card is a tedious task. Nadra centres are too under-resourced to replace the cards of a large population. Many people lost their cards and another large number could not get their expired cards renewed as they lived in makeshift camps for months on end. Nadra initially deployed mobile vans to facilitate communities in the flood-affected zones.

Considering the sizeable population without CNICs and the current capacity of Nadra, there is an urgent need to beef up the database authority’s services in the flood-affected areas. Otherwise, in a business-as-usual scenario, several thousand may not be able to exercise their right to vote.

School buildings are very important premises for elections. Polling stations are set up here. Sindh lost 20,000 school buildings and 3,000 schools were damaged in Balochistan. Only a small fraction of these buildings have been repaired due to the competing priorities of relief and rehabilitation.

News stories published in Sindhi newspapers bear testimony to the grave situation. In Jacobabad, 87 of the 514 polling stations need repairs. These include 24 that don’t have a roof. Two hundred and thirty polling stations have no electricity; 252 are without drinking water facilities; 227 have no toilets and 439 are not accessible to differently abled people.

Similarly, the commissioner Hyderabad was informed in a meeting that 3,612 of 4,654 polling stations in nine districts of the division lack various facilities. Some of the communities expressed concern that if polling stations are relocated, voters may not cast their votes.

Many roads and tracks were also damaged due to floods that can make access to polling stations cumbersome. These factors can impede the turnout at polling stations, especially of women, the elderly and differently abled.

The floods displaced more than 10 million people as 2.1m homes were damaged in Sindh and approximately 100,000 in Balochistan. Most of these people have returned to their abodes, yet a sizeable population, especially those who migrated to urban centres in search of shelter and livelihood, could not return.

The displaced people mostly belong to low-income groups that may not be able to afford the cost of returning to their villages on voting day. This can potentially deprive several thousand voters from casting their vote.

Post-flood disaster relief was very much influenced by political parties and local influentials. It is widely perceived that aid distribution through the local administration, and in some cases by NGOs, was not impartial.

Amid a huge crowd of affected people, those seen as politically loyal received preferential treatment during the relief and rehabilitation exercise. Political parties and local leaders are likely to harvest the bounties of this favouritism by telling voters to reciprocate on polling day.

The voters will have little choice but to cast their votes for those whose hands control the system. This is unavoidable for marginalised people as the remaining rehabilitation phase is also tied to polling results. The ECP will have no remedy to this complex challenge, which is rooted in a culture where association and loyalty take centre stage at the time of crises.

With limited time, finite resources and constrained agency, the ECP faces a formidable challenge in attempting to shield the polling process from the side effects of the flood disaster.

Nevertheless, problems requiring administrative effort, such as the replacement of CNICs and appropriate locations of polling stations, can be managed to ameliorate the floods’ impact on the polling process.

Acknowledgement: Originally published in Daily Dawn, December 1st, 2023

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