In order to test some basic assumptions on the systems of political representation and get a deeper understanding of the role of “culture” in democracy I utilized IDEO’s ‘Cross-Cultural Comparisons’ framework.
I engaged a friend, that had lived in the US briefly, but had only ever voted in elections in another country (Pakistan) to try, and draw out similarities and differences in the democratic systems that ostensibly share the same overarching ideals.
The most recent national election in Pakistan was held only a few months ago in July. My friend took part as both a voter and an independent observer at a polling station on behalf of a non-profit organization.
Some core functional differences were the most immediately obvious and had a direct impact on the cultural “performance” of elections. The two most prominent factors that contributed to this were automatic voter registration and election day being a declared national holiday.
The fact that election day is a holiday and effectively open to all adults who decide to show up, helps create a festive, carnival-like atmosphere at most polling locations. Many families or groups of friends come to polling stations together, driven by a mix of civic responsibility and the chance to have a fun day out. Street vendors set up shop to serve refreshments close by as people line up and even political parties themselves take advantage of this atmosphere. While not allowed inside polling location, many parties set up booths outside to serve refreshments of their own, get some last-minute campaigning in and distribute party SWAG.
Another side of the equation is the differing level of trust in the system. By and large, election officers and the process of tabulating votes is not considered to be easily corruptible in the US (although the recent midterms might hint at the beginnings of this assumption no longer being considered sacrosanct). In Pakistan, however, the losing party questioning the validity of the elections and accusing the winning party of “rigging” is an enduring tradition in of itself.
To this end, each polling booth has a strong presence of official, independent and party affiliated observers that attempt to ensure that nothing suspect takes place. This also includes the legally mandated presence of military personnel for security and monitoring.
In terms of substantive differences there appears to far less emphasis on ideological voting than in the US. Although the parliamentary system means the leader of each party is not on every ballot, most votes represent preferences for party leadership. However, most major parties do not truly campaign on the basis of valued based “liberal” or “conservative” agendas comparable to the US. Voting decisions and political public discourse is tied less to ideological positions, and more to practical, policy or reputational considerations (with some exceptions).
Elections in Pakistan are also, in the quite literal sense, reliant on symbols to communicate meaning. The ballot is populated with both the names of each candidate and a symbol that represents their political party.
The party symbol is one of the most critical, and unifying, aspects of political messaging. It often represents the way a party would like to be identified. The previous incumbent party, the PML-N, for instance, uses the symbol of a tiger. The PTI, the winner of the current election and party of the former cricket legend Imran Khan, uses a cricket bat. The symbols are also deeply embedded into party rhetoric and material, such as banners and advertisements. For instance, the third major party, the PPP-P, that uses an arrow as its symbol, has used an original theme song at its rallies for the last 30 years that loosely translates to “an arrow to the heart”.
One of the most universal symbols circulating around election time is the “inked thumb”. Votes are registered by inking a thumb impression on a form, marking the thumbnail with a permanent marker, and then stamping a name and party symbol on a ballot. The inked thumb acts as a symbol of the act of voting and elections in general, and plays the role of a very visceral “I Voted” sticker. In the age of social media, election day sees a wave of people sharing pictures of their inked or marked thumb one they’ve voted.
Another interesting aspect of this elections was the role of technology. The government had announced the use of a new live vote tabulation system for this election that would display results live as they came in from each polling station. However, the system crashed midway through election day and results stopped being reported for several hours. This fueled a flurry of conspiracy theories that the results were being manipulated. This episode, and the subsequent reaction demonstrated how technology can often reduce trust, rather than increase it, if it is perceived to be too much of a black box, which is important to keep in mind when designing any solution.