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Zaid Ahmed Abro

June 17th, 2024

Polling Agents: An Unlikely Agent of Development in South Asia

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Zaid Ahmed Abro

June 17th, 2024

Polling Agents: An Unlikely Agent of Development in South Asia

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

For the topic ‘Politics is a Barrier to Societal Development in South Asia’ — Zaid Ahmed Abro, winner of the LSE South Asia Centre’s Vera Anstey South Asia Essay Competition 2024 — argues that polling agents in South Asia should be seen as agents of development, providing crucial transparency and voting education for the electorate at polling booths across the country on the day of the elections.

[Editor: Editorial interventions are marked with [square brackets]. Essays for the Vera Anstey Essay Competition were submitted in March 2024, prior to the start of the general elections in India.]

 

The year 2024 is poised to be a watershed for the future trajectory of South Asia as a whole, where the entire region (with the exception of Nepal) has undergone or is scheduled to undergo [national] elections. Bangladesh and Pakistan held general elections, each marred by controversy, in January and February, respectively, while India prepares for the world’s largest elections amidst a crackdown on the Opposition. Similarly, Sri Lanka’s presidential elections are due in November, marking the first since the nation declared bankruptcy and its former president [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] was forced to resign by a popular movement.

In the quest for stability, finding a silver lining amidst the vast political divisions across South Asia proves challenging. However, this post argues that polling agents have emerged as an unexpected and rather intriguing silver lining, serving as agents of societal development in South Asia’s democratic journey. [They] have demonstrated remarkable resilience, significantly enhanced the transparency of the democratic process, and broadened the scope of democracy to encompass a wider segment of society.

Who are Polling Agents?

Polling agents are political party workers appointed by candidates contesting elections to oversee the voting process and counting [of votes] at specific polling stations. They are permitted inside the polling station to observe and ensure the fair conduct of the voting process. At the end of polling, they are also allowed to observe the vote count. In South Asia, polling agents have evolved to serve as educators on election day, assisting voters with the logistics of voting. Collectively, polling agents play a crucial role in a candidate’s election-day management by relaying important information back to central management, such as issues with transportation or voter turnout.

Transparency

Through their presence and unwavering resilience, polling agents have enhanced the transparency of elections, contributing to their legitimacy and, in turn, strengthening democracy — a fundamental component for stability and success. This aspect is observed through Pakistan’s most recent elections.

In the 2024 elections in Pakistan, which were marked by controversy due to the barring of the main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), from contesting under its party symbol, and the jailing of its leader (former Prime Minister Imran Khan) polling agents affiliated with PTI played a crucial role in restoring trust in the electoral process. This effort led to a significant increase in voter turnout. Salman Akram Raja, a candidate associated with PTI for the National Assembly, shared insights at an event organised by LSE South Asia Centre [in collaboration with the Department of Social Policy] about the extensive training polling agents received prior to the elections. These agents ensured that all votes were counted and obtained a certified copy of the total vote count, known in Pakistan as a ‘Form-45’. This meticulous operation allowed, for the first time, the documentation and comparison of counting errors across all electoral seats in Pakistan. The official results published by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) can now be compared with the vote counts received by polling agents on election day itself (see Form-45 (as per polling agents) here versus Form-45 (as per ECP) here).

This is an example of political conflict enhancing the resilience of political organisations, which can be viewed as a marker of societal development.

The focus on polling agents as carriers of political development through transparency is visible across the region. Bangladesh’s elections in 2024 have come under significant criticism and troubles of legitimacy in an environment of boycott by Opposition parties, and the absence of polling agents barring the ruling party. The lesson to be learnt here is that politics can be a path to societal development, and expansion of democratic society. All eyes will be on India and Sri Lanka as they head to the polls; the focus on training polling agents by contesting candidates can be key to changing political fortunes.

Democratic Expansion

Polling agents serve as more than mere observers of the electoral process; they also act as educators on election day. Given South Asia’s incredible diversity, and the fact that a large portion of the population lives in rural areas with limited access to education, polling agents become crucial contacts for prospective voters. They ensure that voters can accurately complete their ballots and identify the candidate they wish to support.

While each nation in South Asia has followed different growth trajectories and experienced varied journeys through democratic elections, a consistent observation across geographies is that better organisation on election day can improve election outcomes for political parties. This phenomenon was observed in previous elections in Pakistan, where the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) cited a lack of adequate polling agents as one of the reasons for their losses in Punjab (Wilder 1995). More recently, the All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC) party in India’s West Bengal opposed changes to the Election Commission’s rules regarding the appointment of polling agents, arguing that a shortage of available staff could put them at a disadvantage compared to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which boasts a stronger organisational structure.

Political conflict increases competitiveness, which in turn increases the incentive for political parties to train better and employ more polling agents. This increase in polling agents enables the more educative voting process for the average citizen which, in the long run, can increase the population’s democratic engagement, and therefore develop society on a political level. Continued erosion of competitiveness, and consolidation, which is observed in Bangladesh’s virtually single-party elections in 2024 stands to threaten the long-term development of South Asia.

Conclusion

Politics holds the key to societal development in South Asia, rather than acting as a barrier. We must look at societal development in a broader sense rather than a strict economic sense. Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’ is perhaps a useful lens to evaluate the role of politics in the development of South Asia. Polling agents, as agents of development, are one actor/aspect amongst many to observe at a critical juncture. This post merely argues that in 2024, polling agents are perhaps a very interesting aspect to observe and evaluate.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Elemental5 Digital, 2018, Unsplash.

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About the author

Zaid Ahmed Abro

Zaid Ahmed Abro is reading for an MSc in International Social and Public Policy in the Department of Social Policy, LSE.

Posted In: South Asia

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