A Pressing Need of the Hour
Democracy is indispensable to Pakistan’s national integrity, security and development. Our past experience with this form of government has made it amply evident that it is only democracy that can spur sustainable growth and development in the country. The democratic form of government, if allowed to deliver unhindered and take roots for a considerable period of time, is bound to yield dividends in the forms of good governance; across-the-board accountability; formulation of meticulous policies and their smooth execution; elimination of the evils of nepotism, favouritism, maladministration; mainstreaming of downtrodden communities and neglected areas; national integration and unwavering loyalty to the state. Democracy offers a pluralistic and broad-based governance model that effectively preempts any attempt to threaten solidarity and territorial integrity of a country. But despite its self-evident indispensability for the federation of Pakistan, democracy has been struggling to gain a permanent foothold here and it has cost dearly to the nation – it even caused the dismemberment of the country. Though there are multiple factors that have created, and continue to create, hurdles in the strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan, the lack of meaningful and effective electoral reforms is one principal among them, and it can be blamed for the current poor state of affairs in the country. A cursory look at the current electoral system of Pakistan reveals that the country needs reforms in three areas: legal, political and administrative autonomy of Election Commission of Pakistan; election procedure; and in the strength and composition of Parliament.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is an independent state institution that was established under Article 218 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The ECP has been given constitutionally-enshrined duties (Article 219) of organizing and conducting free and fair elections to National Assembly, Provincial Assemblies, Senate, local governments and by-elections, and settling election-related disputes through the enactment of election tribunals or other means. The ECP is a powerful institution that enjoys the powers of a High Court under Section 4(2) of the Election Act, 2017. All district and provincial authorities are bound to follow the instructions given by the ECP. But, despite having enormous constitutional and legal powers, it has failed to organize and conduct any election that did not attract allegations of rigging, manipulation and substantial irregularities. Nonetheless, it is a welcome development that the current ECP recently invoked its long-unutilized powers and ordered re-election in NA-75 (Daska), and demonstrated its willingness to act as a bulwark against any unconstitutional move to undermine popular mandate. In this regard, further legal, administrative and financial empowerment of ECP can go a long way in ensuring independent, free and transparent elections in the future. Some amendments have been suggested to Election Act, 2017, so as to enable the ECP to perform its mandated role effectively.
Pakistan’s democracy suffers from a glaring dearth of democratic culture within political parties. A general lack of institutionalized mechanism for training and polishing new political workers has strengthened the dynastic politics, which is very reminiscent of the old monarchal system whereby a small coterie of families would rule over masses with the ‘divine’ right to rule. The introduction of legally-binding, meaningful intra-party elections must be the most immediate intervention to discourage the dynastic tendencies in political parties. Section 208 of the Election Act, 2017, does discuss the conduct of intra-party elections, but the ECP has nothing to do with the methodology and merits of the election procedure. Under this section, all political parties are bound to conduct elections and share the names of office-bearers with the ECP. However, a lack of any supervisory role of ECP in such elections has effectively downgraded these to a formality. But that is costing dearly to the democratic institutions of Pakistan. The ECP must be empowered to organize, conduct and supervise intra-party elections through amendment to Section 208 of the Election Act, 2017.
Out of legal requirements, the candidates contesting an election have to submit their educational, financial, personal and nationality statements to the ECP. The transparent and effective vetting process of these statements is crucially required to improve the quality of candidacy in our elections. But ECP cannot initiate an inquiry on its own to determine the authenticity of the documents submitted to it – it can move only when a rival candidate lodges a complaint and demands an investigation. This means that a person, in spite of having a criminal background or record, can get elected to national and provincial legislatures, if a rival candidate raises no objection. The mandate to raise objections on a candidate and initiate inquiry against him/her should rest with the ECP. And, it should fulfil this responsibility by using its own sources and in close collaboration with NADRA, FBR, HEC, FIA, Police and other relevant departments.
Inclusion of the option ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) on ballot paper along with the names of contesting candidates is another step that the ECP should deliberate on seriously. The growing disillusionment with the nomination of same candidate every time by political parties does warrant the addition of this option to the ballot paper. And, if, in an election, the majority of voters opt for NOTA, the ECP should declare election in that constituency null and void and a fresh election should, then, be conducted with a different set of candidates. This option would help increase public confidence in the election, and the chronic issue of abysmal turnout would also be resolved. In the same vein, voters of a particular constituency should be given the right to show no-confidence against a candidate nominated by a political party. The concerned party must be bound to change that candidate. Section 9 of Election Act, 2017, which deals with the powers of the ECP to declare an election void, if turnout of women voters is less than 10%, should be expanded to further enhance ECP’s powers to declare election in a constituency void on the above-mentioned basis as well.
Election is the bedrock of democracy. A free, fair and transparent election ensures political stability, rule of law and socioeconomic development of a country. The trust in the conduct of election motivates all political parties to respect the mandate of others, or that of the winning party for that matter. The political stability that ensues from this would provide the ruling party with space to implement its manifesto. Similarly, there will be a better working relationship between the opposition and the government that would ensure smooth legislation with vital inputs from the opposition, which is crucially important to improve the quality of legislative acts. Completion of a democratic tenure can also be credited with improved performance of the government in the socioeconomic sector that ensures a trickle down of the dividends of democracy. In other words, fair and transparent elections not only have political significance, but these are also crucially required for the economic and legislative development of the country.
Enfranchisement of the maximum number of citizens and their facilitation to cast their vote in a dignified manner is a prerequisite to ensuring quality elections. Unfortunately, the process of casting vote is manual and extremely cumbersome that creates unnecessary hurdles. One such impediment is the requirement of casting vote from a permanent address, not from the city of the current accommodation (Section 27). This condition resulted in the disenfranchisement of 6 to 8 million people in the general election of 2018, as per a report published in The News International. Though Sections 30 and 31 provide a procedure to change the address, yet that is manual and often protracted. Resultantly, internally-displaced people and urban migrants fail to vote and it further exacerbates the issue of low turnout. These sections warrant immediate amendment for the facilitation of the voting process and making the election a true manifestation of popular aspirations.
Demographically, Pakistan is a large country and it conducts the world’s largest single-day election, according to Secretary ECP, Dr Akhtar Nazir. In General Election 2018, as many as 106 million voters cast their votes at 85,090 polling stations. The ECP is finding it increasingly harder to make arrangements for the printing, transportation and storage of ballot papers. In addition to logistics-related challenges, the security of ballot papers and other stuff has also become a headache for the ECP officials. The manual nature of counting, tabulation compilation and transmission of results makes the election process very cumbersome and time-taking exercise and also stirs suspicions and unwarranted allegations of rigging. The introduction of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) has long been suggested by many quarters as an effective remedy to the above-said ill. But it is a tricky intervention as experience throughout the world shows that EVMs are vulnerable to even greater risks of manipulation. Technologically advanced democracies, including the UK, France, Canada, Norway and others, don’t use EVMs and prefer instead ballot-based elections. For example, the Constitutional Court of Germany ordered discarding the practice of EVM in 2009 and the country switched to paper balloting. So did the Netherlands. India is the only major democracy that uses EVMs, but here again, electronic machines are being used with strings attached. Indian SC has ordered the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines for the proper trail of every vote cast. The counting of EVMs is corroborated with a paper trail. Despite having such safeguards, the 2019 general election in India was subjected to the fiercest allegations of cyber manipulation. Furthermore, the low literacy rate and lack of awareness among the voters also make the EVM-based elections in Pakistan a non-starter. Section 103 of the Election Act, 2017, deals with EVMs and binds ECP to conduct a pilot project to determine the technical efficiency and financial feasibility of e-voting. The ECP conducted the pilot project at a smaller scale and suggested the introduction of EVMs in a gradual manner. In addition to a vulnerability against cyber manipulations, the EVMs would be prohibitively costly. The purchase of 350,000 electronic machines and their storage, transportation and maintenance, as well expenditures to be made on the training of the electoral staff would cost national exchequer around 120 billion rupees. But, despite such a whopping cost, the allegations of rigging and impartiality would continue to undermine the electoral process. The government should tread this path cautiously and it needs to consult all stakeholders to ensure consensus-based decision regarding switching to i-voting or e-voting. The promulgation of an ordinance to introduce EVMs should be discouraged and a proper channel of legislation should be preferred for the greater good of achieving national consensus.
The nine million overseas Pakistanis deserve participation in the process of decision-making in their home country. Their voices should be incorporated in the legislation and their reservations should be addressed. For this to happen, giving them the right to vote from the country they are currently residing in should be the topmost priority. It is indeed a great development that the incumbent government is utilizing every tool at its disposal for the enfranchisement of the expatriates. Recently, it has promulgated an ordinance that amends Section 94 of the Election Act, 2017, and allows overseas Pakistan to cast votes from their resident countries. The real challenge, however, lies in enacting an election procedure that ensures the privacy and integrity of voters’ data. Voting through paper-ballot or email-based voting is prone to rigging and breach of security of the data. E-voting is also a vulnerable exercise. These hurdles should be removed democratically and, here again, national consensus must be built before moving ahead. France has resolved this issue through the reservation of constituencies for expatriates in its Parliament. Pakistan can also follow the suit as it will help increase the participation of overseas Pakistanis in a direct and meaningful manner. The Parliament should also be expanded by adding special seats for farmers, educationists and other segments of society.
The disputed and contentious Senate Election 2021 further highlights the importance of introducing immediate electoral reforms. Article 226 of the constitution mandates secret balloting for all elections except those of the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers. This provision has created huge space for manipulation and repugnant practice of selling and buying votes. The Senators should be elected directly through adult franchise on the pattern of US Senators’ election and secret balloting should be discarded henceforth. Since the Supreme Court of Pakistan has given the verdict under its advisory jurisdiction that Senate Election cannot be held under Election Act, 2017, the only way forward to effect this reform is an amendment to the constitution. Along with the adult franchise-based Senate election, the direct election should be held for women and minority seats reserved in the national and provincial assemblies. The practice of nominating candidate to fill these seats has concentrated the power in the hands of few, and the very purpose of minority and women empowerment has effectively been rendered irrelevant. A separate electorate along the lines of gender and religion should be the basis of election and all provisions of the Election Act, 2017, should be applied to these elections as well to ensure transparency, impartiality and a level playing field.
Pakistan is the only democratic country where candidates can contest elections on multiple seats. Article 223(b) allows a candidate to contest election from more than one constituency. But, (s)he can retain only one seat from all (s)he had won. So, after retention of one seat, other seats fall vacant and ECP has to conduct by-elections on those, thereby squandering already scarce resources. This provision should also be done away with as Pakistan can ill-afford this unjustifiable wastage of resources. Unfortunately, it has become almost a standard practice for heads of political parties to contest election from multiple constituencies. For instance, PM Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif contested election on five National Assembly seats each and Bilawal Bhutto fought on three. Obviously, this is awful wastage of resources that must be stopped.
It is a welcome development that the PTI government has announced a comprehensive reform package that encompasses 49 amendments to the Election Act, 2017. But the government should tread this path gradually and incorporate the voices of all stakeholders. The opposition must also let its obduracy go and engage with the government in a proactive manner. The current stalemate and stubborn denial to engage each other do not bode well for the future of democracy in Pakistan. Only a consensus-based approach through the Parliament can ensure smooth legislation in this matter of national significance. Unilateralism in the form of the ordinances should be avoided as this reactionary and myopic approach creates further political polarization and shrinks the space for political dialogue. PTI government deserves applause for bringing electoral reform to the forefront, but it should be accommodative enough to pay heed to the legitimate concerns shown by political parties, ECP think tanks and civil society. Electoral reforms are crucially important, but unnecessary haste would make the whole process controversial that would, in return, kill the whole purpose of conducting a rigging-free and manipulation-proof election.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.