THE Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PCER) deserves credit for finalising its proposals for reform of the election system before next year’s polls. The National Assembly speaker had perhaps been unduly ambitious when he had asked the committee, set up 29 months ago, to complete its work in three months.
The committee’s broad mandate reflected the concerns over deficiencies and flaws in the election system voiced by various stakeholders. It included, but was not limited to, “making recommendations in respect of electoral reforms, required to ensure free, fair and transparent elections, including adoption of the latest technology, available for holding elections, along with draft legislation, including constitutional amendments, if required for this purpose”.
One part of PCER’s proposals, relating to appointment of the chief election commissioner and members of the Election Commission, has taken the form of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that the National Assembly has already adopted. The amendment has received favourable comments for making — besides judges — former civil servants and experts eligible for appointment as chief election commissioner and ECP members.
Now the PCER’s detailed report, in the form of the Elections Bill 2017, is being debated at various forums. It is to be hoped that these discussions will be taken into consideration by parliament before the bill is adopted as it needs to be reviewed at some places and some essential reforms are still awaited.
Many issues that the electoral reforms committee was expected to resolve have not been addressed.
The more important improvements suggested in the election system include greater financial and administrative powers for the ECP, provision of voting by overseas Pakistanis, better system for publication of results data, opening of district returning officers’ posts for ECP staff, greater use of Nadra data for preparation and revision of electoral rolls and delimitation of constituencies, grant of more time for making representation to the ECP and filing of objections/ complaints, regulation of local government elections, and special measures to secure women’s voting rights. The unwelcome proposals include grant of rule-making power to the government, which hits the principle of the ECP’s independence from the executive.
That the PCER recommendations still need a critical appraisal can be gauged from the measures proposed to secure women’s due participation in elections. The Election Commission has been empowered to declare “polling at one or more polling stations, or election in the whole constituency, void”, “if the turnout of women voters is less than 10pc of the total votes polled in a constituency”. The ECP will act in the matter after presuming “that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes.”
While the idea underlying this provision is sound, the text needs to be clarified and improved, because it offers comfort to lawyers who might challenge the ECP’s decisions. The confusion caused by the reference to women’s votes cast in a constituency and declaration of polling at one or more polling stations as void needs to be removed. Besides, ECP intervention will depend on proof of an ‘agreement’ to restrain women from voting. However, women are often prevented from voting without a formal agreement. The loophole in the text can be covered by deleting the reference to presumption. Incidentally, the language used while obliging a presiding officer to report a low women turnout is somewhat better as he will act if he has reason to believe that “the restraint on women is based on any express or implied agreement”.
A laudable provision obliges the ECP to take note in annual reports of the difference in the number of registered men and women voters in each National Assembly constituency, and take special measures to reduce the gap.
It would have served the cause of democracy better if the proposed law had included some steps to promote proper registration of voters belonging to the minorities and ensuring their maximum possible turnout.
Much credit has been claimed for the decision to club nine election-related enactments into a single election bill, but the benefits of the step are not obvious.
The nine laws strung together are the Electoral Rolls Act and the Delimitation of Constituencies Act, both of 1974, the Senate (Elections) Act, 1975; the Representation of the People Act, 1976; and five Musharraf-regime orders of 2002 — the Election Commission Order, the Conduct of General Elections Order, the Political Parties Order, the Qualifications to Hold Office Order and the Allocation of Symbols Order. (If collection of all electoral matters under one omnibus law was the idea, why were the constitutional provisions regarding elections and strength of assemblies or the Presidential Election Rules left out?) The unified enactment could make the task of lawyers and students of politics harder.
Quite a few issues that the PCER was expected to resolve have been left unaddressed. These include the eligibility/ disqualification criteria inserted in the Constitution (Articles 62 and 63) by Gen Ziaul Haq that are incompatible with democratic principles, and the reservation of the electoral field only for the very rich. The fault lies perhaps in assuming that everybody who does cast his/ her ballot is capable of making a free choice, whereas a great number of people — bonded workers, tenants, rural have-nots, poor men and women belonging to minorities — cannot afford to make independent decisions.
Thus, free and democratically acceptable elections demand demolition of feudal, caste and social stratification of society. Till such changes take place there is a strong case for reserving seats for peasants and labour in the Senate as they have a better claim to this privilege than ulema and technocrats.
The main problem with the present exercise seems to be the misplaced belief that parliamentarians securing seats through an elite-friendly system can resist the pulls of status quo. The present set of proposals is welcome, but for mapping out a genuinely democratic election system it may be necessary to create a new commission comprising — besides politicians and parliamentarians — jurists, academics, and civil society representatives.
Published in Dawn January 12th, 2017