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Photo illustration by John Lyman

Climate change poses significant challenges to electoral processes in South Asia, necessitating climate-resilient policies and proactive measures to protect voter rights and ensure effective elections.

In 2024, voters in approximately sixty-eight countries will exercise their civic duty. Recently, India, the world’s largest democracy, navigated its staggered election process in the scorching summer. A massive number of voters—970 million—partook in this democratic exercise, shaping Indian democracy with a weak coalition government and a strong opposition. However, an extreme heatwave emerged as a significant climate-induced challenge, resulting in the deaths of at least 77 people and impacting dozens of poll workers as the voting process wrapped up.

As the United States and many countries in Europe and Asia head towards elections, the credibility of electoral processes and anomalies are scrutinized under international human rights frameworks. Yet, the impact of climate change on electoral processes and outcomes remains largely ignored. Electoral administrators have yet to align climate change threats with climate-resilient electoral policies and strategic planning.

Climate change-induced hazards such as heatwaves, floods, cyclones, and wildfires have long been seen as climate disasters linked with social, economic, and infrastructural damages. However, their impact on electoral processes and voters’ rights has not been adequately considered. The state-run India Meteorological Department (IMD) predicted that 2024 would be warmer than 2023, with heatwaves more than double the average during April-June.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), India is among the countries most affected by the climate crisis, which will lead to more frequent and longer heat waves in the future. The coincidence of extreme weather patterns with election schedules has shown a visible impact on electoral processes, including canvassing campaigns and voter turnout.

Almost 196 countries and international bodies signed and ratified the Paris Agreement, pledging to limit the increase in global average temperature to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, this goal has not been achieved. The IPCC projects a dramatic increase in heatwaves, altered rainfall patterns, and rising sea levels by the end of this century. In 2023, global temperatures climbed to 1.36 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The UN Environment Programme assesses that by 2100, the planet will reach three degrees above pre-industrial levels unless current climate policies are reinforced.

The frequent occurrence of climate-induced disasters threatens not only development, emergency responses, poverty alleviation, health, and economic growth but also impacts electoral processes. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), several countries faced extreme weather events during local or national elections between January 2019 and January 2024. In 2019, just before voter registration, Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, causing massive population displacement and severely affecting the voter registration process. Similarly, in 2022, massive floods in Pakistan created challenges for 33 million people, devastating the economy and infrastructure and displacing millions. The floods were also significant challenges for local and national elections, with many losing their identity cards needed for voting. The Election Commission of Pakistan had to cancel several elections in flood-hit areas due to the damage and emergency response efforts.

Countries in South Asia, including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, are particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis. Despite this, electoral authorities have taken proactive steps towards climate-resilient elections. The Election Commission of India (ECI) introduced green initiatives, campaigning against single-use plastics since 1999, and directed political parties to stop using single-use plastics for campaign materials. For the 2024 national elections, the ECI set up biodegradable and locally produced polling booths and voter shades as safety measures during heatwaves. The ECI also updated its manual on Electoral Risk Management to include a section on disasters.

Sri Lanka has also taken concrete measures to promote environmentally friendly elections. In 2019, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) political party ran a carbon-sensitive campaign by tracking carbon emissions and planting trees to counterbalance its environmental impact. The recent strategic plan acknowledges the environmental impact of elections but lacks specific actions.

Pakistan, despite having a comprehensive electoral architecture, does not promote environmentally friendly elections or mention climate change impacts. The recent extreme weather events have revealed several challenges to electoral processes. There is a need to assess the climate impact on elections and align strategic planning with climate actions and the National Adaptation Plan 2023.

It is high time for electoral authorities in South Asia, especially those with upcoming elections in 2024, to acknowledge climate change as a reality affecting enfranchisement rights and electoral outcomes. Governments need to take proactive steps to integrate waste and toxic prevention into elections and dispose of campaign materials in an environmentally conscious way. Electoral authorities should adopt environmentally friendly initiatives from proactive authorities in India, Sri Lanka, and Australia. This approach can contribute to global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, scale up climate actions, and protect voters’ rights in times of climate crisis.

Ikram Ali, an alumnus of Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, holds a Master’s degree in History. With a rich tapestry of experience spanning over 15 years, Ikram has honed his expertise through collaborations with preeminent global organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and Democracy Reporting International (DRI), advocating for comprehensive political and electoral reforms in Pakistan. His dedication to fostering governance excellence was further recognized in 2018 when he completed the prestigious South and Central Asia Legislative Fellows Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, affirming his role as a distinguished scholar and practitioner in the realm of democracy and governance.