A few days before Referendum 2002 a crude poll conducted by Research & Collection Services revealed that, viz (1) the turnout would be less than 30% and (2) 65% of those responding to the queries would support the President. This poll was conducted over 93 cities/towns and adjacent rural constituencies, there was plus/minus 5% margin for error in this poll. By 12:30 pm on Referendum Day the feedback from the staff in the field concluded that the poll was spectacularly wrong on both counts. Except for Quetta, some parts of interior Sindh and a few places in Karachi, the polling throughout the country was brisk, the turnout already crossing the 30% mark. In exit polls, slightly more than 90% were openly favouring the President, only 2-3% demurred. Between 2 pm and 4 pm voting slowed considerably because of the intense mid-afternoon heat, by 5 pm there was a rush to meet the 7 pm deadline. The 60% plus turnout claimed by the government is therefore credible.
Where and why did the pre-Referendum forecast go wrong? First and foremost the voters were well motivated towards the President. Even while complaining that the present governance was far from satisfactory, many did not want Ms Bhutto or Mian Nawaz Sharif misgoverning them again. Third, almost 15 million voters are under the age of 21, voting age being reduced to 18. Owing no allegiance to any political party and brought up on political horror stories, they cast their vote en bloc for the President. His hard stance towards the militancy of the religious parties was another factor. Lastly the increased number of polling stations, 164000 in all, almost 6 times the normal electoral day average, increased the voter turnout manifold as it allowed easy voting throughout the day. As someone remarked, everyone and his mother-in-law went out to vote, many had never voted before. The same refrain remained throughout the country. There were certainly voter irregularities, mainly, viz (1) voters not having their identities properly checked (2) the indelible ink coming off and (3) repeated voting. These did not have official sanction much and were not in such large numbers as to affect the voting turnout, which hovered around 60%. Of the 40% who stayed away, at least half were hard-core supporters of the opposition political parties.
The major reason for the print media initially reporting a low turnout was also the major reason for the high turnout, the number and easy availability of polling stations. The absence of large queues added to this false perception. The polling station on main Zamzama Boulevard in Defense Housing Authority Phase 5 in Karachi at about 4 pm had 7 male and 2 female voters waiting to vote. Compared to normal voting day the polling station had a very deserted look. Devoid of the hustle and bustle of political parties’ camps during national and provincial elections, polling agents, refreshments and eatables, loudspeakers, music and political rhetoric, the voting booths had a haunted look. By the time one finished voting 3-4 minutes later almost 6-7 more persons had arrived to vote. The polling station was to cater for 300 voters but more than 1200 had voted already, they had thrice run short of ballot papers. A similiar situation existed in nearly all the 20 polling stations within a square mile or so of that area. In some areas in North Karachi the voting was very light particularly among the womenfolk, because of the ambiguity of the MQM’s intention. Nevertheless the males almost all voted when they went to their places of work. Even with light voting at places, the average remained well above the 300 figure per polling station.
The print media reporting of a “low turnout” on the morning after (on May 1) was a rude awakening, enough to put some self-doubt into our calculations. At about 8:00 on Wednesday May 1 an across-the-board review was requested in 18 cities and towns, a cross-section of the original 93. A sampling of areas in Peshawar was done to see whether the occupants had voted or not, viz (1) 104 houses in Defense Officers Colony, Khyber Road (77 houses voted, 27 did not), (2) 12 houses in Mohalla Katla Mohsin (9 yes 3 no) (3) 25 houses in Lalazar Colony, Kohat Road (19 yes 6 no) (4) 14 houses, Mohalla Banamari (12 yes 2 no) (5) 11 houses in Civil Quarter, Kohat Road (6 yes 5 no) (6) 14 houses in Mohallah Haji Khan Mohd, Landi Arbab (9 yes 5 no) (7) 24 houses in Mohallah Fateh Khan Khail Kohat Road (13 yes 11 no) and 17 houses in Mohallah Landi Arbab (11 yes 6 no). The occupants of 156 houses out of 221 voted ie. about 70%. Since we do not know the number of occupants in each house, we should be satisfied with the official 60% national average for the turnout. The average in the elite areas rose well beyond 70%. The print media was working on perception, not reality.
The “tidal wave” for the President may be good news not only for General Pervez Musharraf and for Pakistan but in an oblique manner it is also good for democracy in Pakistan, something that will be ignored at their peril by the political parties who called a boycott of the Referendum. How does the 7-point agenda of the President differ from what should be the aim of all the political entities in Pakistan? Which of the political parties disagree with (1) enhancing national morale (2) promoting provincial harmony (3) improving law and order (4) enhancing economic stability (5) depoliticising state institutions (6) devolution of power and (7) carrying out accountability? The modus operandi may be different, the ends remain the same. This military regime has shown real intent to fulfil their promises to the people while the two major political parties each failed their chance for displaying good governance both times.
Paraphrasing Mark Twain, the rumours of the demise of both PPP and PML (N) are greatly exaggerated. There is no writing on the wall for the two major political parties. Both the government and its political allies and the combined opposition need to learn lessons of détente from this electoral exercise. If the politicians heed the warning the electorate has given them they will bounce back to considerable nuisance value, however if they continue to believe their own falsehood that the turnout was low than they are on the way to political oblivion. Instead of being of help to the President some of the political parties were a drag because of the bad reputation of some individuals. With a rainbow coalition of sorts, based on the devolution of power to the Local Bodies, the President has a loose alliance which may come apart at the seams if and when faced by any crisis. He must choose very carefully those he will allow to grab his coattails to come to the Assemblies. The silver lining in the political education of Pervez Musharraf notwithstanding, Referendum 2002 has separated the fence-sitters into friends and foes, important for a leader who intends to be a long distance runner and needs to come to terms with the loneliness thereof. From now until Oct 2002, Muhsarraf must be focussed and decisive about the reforms he must pursue to fulfil his agenda for good governance. The President has to translate “Tidal Wave 2002” into tangible benefits for the people of Pakistan.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).