Transparency is a prerequisite for the credibility of any election and its ability to yield a legitimate mandate for the government. It is, therefore, not surprising that political contenders have consistently demanded transparent elections since 1970. Their demands were perhaps propelled by the public’s distrust in the electoral process and its ability to deliver a government that reflects the will of the voters. Indeed, trust largely depends on transparency.
But what does transparency in elections really mean, and how is it important to citizens and political contenders? Transparency is not just about changes in the law or the rules of the electoral process, but the general attitude of the election management body towards election stakeholders: citizens, political parties, election observers and the media. Unless each step in the election process is open to the scrutiny of the stakeholders, elections are not considered transparent. Although the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is a powerful constitutional institution, it is accountable to all election stakeholders for all decisions that relate to the execution of its mandate, under Article 218 (3) of the constitution. The sense of being accountable to citizens is in the spirit of electoral transparency.
From the decisions of the commission to the reasons for its refusal to refer election petitions to tribunals, transparency is the primary building block for public trust. Currently there are many grey areas that exacerbate distrust among citizens, because they do not know why certain decisions were made. For example, citizens do not know why the election of a constituency in the Khurram Agency (NA-38) is yet to take place, after its postponement following a terrorist attack on an election rally in May 2013. There has clearly been an improvement in security, as endorsed by Pakistan’s security agencies, but the people of the constituency continue to be unrepresented in parliament for unknown reasons.
There have been many instances in the past that warranted an explanation by the ECP. For example, citizens would like to know why the commission decided to make changes to the candidate nomination form in March 2013, without the approval of the president of Pakistan, as required under the Representation of People Act, 1976. This action may have been endorsed by the Supreme Court but, nevertheless, it would have been in the interest of transparency for the ECP to release the minutes of that meeting for citizens to know how the members had voted. Similarly, citizens would like to know how members of the commission voted on the issue of inviting judicial officials to conduct the general elections of 2013, especially because a sitting Supreme Court judge was the acting Chief Election Commissioner (CEC).
Since the 18th Amendment has taken responsibilities from the CEC and vested them in the entire commission, it has become important for citizens to know how members of the commission vote on various election-related decisions. Ideally speaking, the commission meetings should be open to the public or, at least, the media should be allowed to attend them.
While transparency at the highest level is absolutely essential, it is also required at every step of the election cycle: the preparation of electoral rolls; the announcement of the election schedule; the appointment of the CEC, commission members and secretary, as well as district returning officers and returning officers; appeals and complaints by candidates against the nomination of election staff and decisions taken by the commission on such complaints; the nomination and scrutiny of candidates; the setting up of polling stations; finalisation and announcement of polling schemes; the appointment of officials for election day duties; the voting, counting, and consolidation of results; the declaration of election expenses, particularly by winning candidates; and the referral of election complaints to tribunals. Transparency at each step of the process improves public confidence in elections, thereby enhancing the legitimacy of the government.
Transparency begins with the appointment of the CEC and commission members. The process of their appointment must be transparent and their appearance before the relevant parliamentary committee must be open to public scrutiny. The presence of the media at these hearings is a mandatory step for electoral transparency. An informed public discourse about the possible candidates only improves the quality of the decisions made by the parliamentary committee.
Considering the context of Pakistan, the parliamentary committee needs to include the leaders of all the parties represented in parliament, instead of its current composition – six members from the treasury and the rest from the six major political parties in parliament. A broader political representation will only yield a more powerful election commission.
The registration of voters is another area that requires legally protected measures to ensure transparency. Electoral rolls are public documents that should be made available for inspection to any requester, as defined by the law. But this is not enough. Citizens should know how and where they can be registered as voters and what documents they need for registration. It is heartening that the Election Commission has now streamlined the registration process, but nevertheless, the role of Nadra in the preparation of the electoral list needs to be defined and brought under legal cover. The public perception that Nadra prepares the electoral rolls does not bode well for the integrity of this most important step in the electoral process.
Another area that warrants absolute transparency is election results management, which includes the counting of votes at the polling stations, the consolidation of polling station results by returning officers and the announcement of the official result by the Election Commission. While the results consolidated by returning officers should be considered official, the presence of candidates or their agents, the media and election observers is an absolute must for the transparency of the consolidation proceedings. Ideally, the ECP should upload all Form XIVs (candidate-wise result at polling station) and Form XVs (the account of ballots papers issued to a polling station) to its website before the final notification of results. This will minimise fraudulent practices in the preparation of constituency-level results, such as the issuance of multiple Form XIVs for one polling station, etc.
While transparency needs to be a cross-cutting theme of any electoral reforms package being finalised by the parliamentary committee working on the subject, anything short of an open-door policy by the election management body would continue to raise questions about the quality of elections and inculcate distrust. Public confidence in elections is a mandatory precondition for a strong democracy.
The writer works for the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen).