In any country, even in well-established democracies, the legal framework and administrative processes for elections need to be seen as organic, requiring regular review and modification. This is important not only to ensure compliance with international standards and obligations but it also reflects a broader political need to engage in continuous efforts to sustain confidence in the efficacy of the democratic system by ensuring that electoral processes are responsive and inclusive, and are aligned with the expectations of all electoral stakeholders. Same is the case with Pakistan where there is a growing recognition that electoral reforms are urgently needed.
One of the most important features of a true democratic polity is the conduct of elections at regular intervals. Elections are the medium through which the attitudes, values and beliefs of the people toward their political environment are reflected. Through elections people of a democratic country are provided an opportunity to express their faith in the government from time to time, and change it when the need arises. Thus, regular free and fair elections are essential component of an effective political system. Free and fair elections constitute the foundation of democracy which embodies the will of the people. So, with the changing world, and change in various aspects of election system, there is always a need to improve the process. However, effecting electoral reforms is a politically sensitive issue because it quintessentially affects core ‘rules of the game’ of a democracy.
Why Electoral Reforms?
Gaps and ambiguities in the electoral framework have often led to political instability in Pakistan. The 18th, the 19th and the 20th Amendments to the Constitution, though have strengthened the democratic processes in the country, there still remain some areas of concern in the legal electoral framework. Hence, strengthening this framework will be highly crucial for ensuring and supporting the continuation of Pakistan’s democratic journey. The repeated failures of democracy that precipitated military rule, usually to curb massive corruption, adequately bring home the point that fundamental changes are necessary in our electoral system, if this country is to progress.
Problems with Pakistan’s Electoral Process
The European Union Election Observer Mission, in its 2013 General Elections report, noted:
“Fundamental problems remain with the legal framework and the implementation of certain provisions, leaving future processes vulnerable to malpractices and Pakistan not fully meeting its obligations to provide citizens the right and opportunity to stand as candidates and to vote.”
Pakistan is an unfortunate country in the sense that it is largely governed by non-professionals, feudal lords, capitalists and less-educated legislators who mostly win the elections by rigging or any other form of corruption or malpractice like undue duress on voters, use of power and violence and by spending huge sums of money, leaving little space for the poor segments of the society to exercise their right to vote for the candidates of their choice. It is because of this fact that no detailed statistics are required, or indeed needed, to make it evident that the overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s population is not represented according to the current electoral system.
A number of factors have seriously undermined the integrity of Pakistan’s electoral process over time. Widespread electoral fraud has eroded democratic development, political stability and the rule of law. Successive military regimes have manipulated national, provincial and local polls to centralize power within the military and its allies. Highly inaccurate voter lists and poorly-managed polling stations are responsible for disenfranchising millions. Polling procedures and codes of conduct are often blatantly disregarded with no consequences for the offenders. Dysfunctional election tribunals have proven incapable of resolving post-election disputes.
These patterns have also compromised civilian institutions such as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which is responsible for overseeing credible elections and orderly political transitions. The Commission suffers from a lack of resources and poor management, which has affected its capacity to research and analyze past elections and to raise important electoral issues. It has had several problems with maintaining an accurate and healthy electoral roll.
Role of Parliamentary Committee
After much hullabaloo was created after the 2013 General Elections, a parliamentary committee was formed to undertake the process of electoral reforms. The 33-member committee, comprising members of all parties in proportion to their representation in the parliament, was tasked with the job to make recommendations to hold free, fair and transparent elections in the future. The formation of the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PCER) represents a community by the government and the parties in parliament to look seriously at reforms.
At the end of July this year, the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms proposed some 13 amendments to the constitution besides structural changes in the incumbent Election Commission of Pakistan, aimed at reforming the prevalent electoral system in the country. Federal Minister for Finance, Ishaq Dar, said that the Committee will soon submit its final recommendations to the Parliament. But, as for now, the matter is in the doldrums.
The Rights and Responsibilities of State
Experience and recent State practices confirm the necessity for oversight of the electoral process, for institutionalized responsibility for implementation by impartial election officials, and for civic education. Therefore, state should ensure that those responsible for the various aspects of the election are trained and they act impartially, and that coherent voting procedures are established and made known to the voting public. State should take the necessary measures to ensure that parties, candidates and supporters enjoy equal security, and that State authorities take the necessary steps to prevent electoral violence. The State and its organs should, therefore, ensure that freedom of movement, assembly, association and expression are respected and that parties and candidates are free to communicate their views to the electorate , particularly in the context of political rallies and meetings.
Main Reform Areas
1. Empowering Election Commission of Pakistan
The difficulty of the work of the ECP is not to be underestimated. The ECP manages one of the world’s largest single-day electoral processes, a considerable task made more formidable by Pakistan’s unique security, development and access issues. The task is not only one of solving disputes, but also of managing thousands of permanent staff deployed across the country and hundreds of thousands of temporary election staff. So, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) must be empowered to exercise its constitutional authority over the government entities to ensure they do not get involved in electoral processes without specific directions from the ECP, and if found guilty, the ECP can suspend any public functionary who, during an election, fails to comply with its directives, despite notice.
2. Appointment of CEC & Members of ECP
Leadership comes from the top and the importance of the appointment and qualifications of the Chief Election Commissioner and members of the Election Commission of Pakistan cannot be understated. It is an area where reforms could indeed bear fruit.
The constitutional obligation of appointing retired Supreme Court judges to lead the ECP ensures that the pool of candidates for appointment is extremely small. Those few who are qualified may see the apex of their career behind them and do not wish to expose their legacy to the withering criticism which the post may bring. Reformers in Pakistan should consider if the appointment of the members and staff should be expanded beyond the judiciary to attract a broader pool of talented individuals from other sectors such as civil society, business or the civil service. Reforms could also include mandatory retirement ages along the lines of many countries.
Many countries stipulate a mandatory retirement age for election commission members to ensure that the commission is run by officers in the height of their careers. In India, Canada and Malaysia, members of the commission must retire at 65 years of age. In Ghana, the maximum age is 70. This type of reform could help revitalize the ECP and put it more in touch with voters; who are mostly young.
3. Improving Quality of Voting and Counting
Legal and procedural reforms are required to improve the quality of voting and counting processes such as printing unique marks on ballots and secure features specific to each constituency to deter fake ballots and to minimize conditions that may wilfully be created and that may eventually lead to rejection of votes.
In this regard, it is pertinent to mention here that counting the number of people who voted is a simple integrity check that costs nothing and can stymie basic forms of ballot stuffing. It involves counting the number of signatures/fingerprints on the electoral rolls at the close of polling. This step is standard practice in countries around the world. At the close of polling, the polling team counts the number of signatures/fingerprints on the electoral rolls, notes this on the results form and then compares it to the number of ballots found in the box. If the numbers do not add up, and cannot be accounted for in the spoiled ballots, then it may indicate ballot stuffing and should be flagged for further investigation. A simple change in the procedures is all that would be required.
4. Electoral Rolls
The display of the draft electoral rolls should also be improved. The rolls should be easily accessible for all voters to ascertain that they are duly registered and to know the location of their polling station well ahead of the Election Day. The draft and final rolls should be available to all political parties as part of their legitimate observation of the electoral process.
5. One Candidate, One Constituency
A candidate should not be allowed to contest elections for more than one constituency. If a candidate is not fully sure of getting elected from his/her own hometown, then why is he allowed to compete from another place where he has no political or personal on-ground involvement with the electorate? Even worse is the abandonment of the seats by these candidates after the elections leading to a very costly by-elections process that sees a lower voter turnout, and results in a total waste of precious national resources.
Despite all the above-mentioned points, it is important to note that no election is perfect. Even in the oldest democracies of the world, or those with the most impressive electoral institutions, there will be problems, malpractices and even deliberate fraud. Fraud can always occur and no country can ensure a fool-proof system. What can be done is to raise the cost of fraud to the point that it is so costly, inconvenient and risky that it no longer remains worth doing. The goal of electoral managers and everyone interested in democratic governance must be to reduce and eliminate fraud and malpractices to the greatest practicable extent.