As the general elections of 2018 draw closer, there has been much talk on how they can be made more inclusive and acceptable to all political players – the mother of all elections in the history of Pakistan, as it were.
This time around – especially in the aftermath of the census – there is a strong likelihood that a high number of voters will be recorded followed by the delimitation of electoral constituencies across the country.
At this juncture, the country has been put on a wait-and-watch mode over the final judgement on the Panama case. Every political party is therefore prioritising the need for anti-corruption content in their election manifestoes. The final verdict in the Panama case is likely to set the final tone for the 2018 elections.
But irrespective of the Panama judgement and its political repercussions, there is an unquestionable belief that our country needs major structural reforms and systemic overhauls before the elections. The results of the seventh national census are going to change several existing frameworks that underpin our federation and its electoral representation.
There is a likelihood that national and provincial assembly seats across the country will increase after the census. Arrangements to accommodate these changes should be finalised immediately after the census data is released and before the next elections – ideally within a year. Seats should be correctly counted as per the revised and updated constituency delimitations. It is a long and overdue national exercise that is going to radically alter the existing electoral calculations and formulas by creating new political realities and realignments.
This can be followed by electoral reforms. If history is anything to go by, we have had election riddled with controversies, either through an indirect elections since the birth of country or direct vote on the basis of adult franchise since 1970. We have also had unpleasant history of polls conducted on a non-party basis, either for general or local bodies’ elections. On both accounts, our electoral history has been marked with mixed reactions, allegations and counter allegations. Nevertheless, our electoral experience has been a big success and has grandly culminated in the 2018 polls, which will have the highest number of registered voters and a renewed spirit to alter fates through the ballot instead of the bullet.
Pakistan witnessed four military takeovers over the last 70 years. During the last military regime, steps were taken to subvert the electoral process through a tailored referendum. This was followed by the indirectly controlled local government and general elections. This control was gradually loosened in 2008 after the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto – which also paved the way for the exit of General Musharraf. The electoral process was matured and gradually became more inclusive in 2013.
The 2018 elections will be based on the latest national census. The number of voters and the number of seats for both the national and provincial assemblies will be considerably high. In addition, there is no shadow of a dictatorial legacy looming over these polls, as it will be the second time that a smooth transition of power from one civilian government to another will take place.
However, to achieve a smooth transfer of power, we need electoral reforms. Every group or party needs to focus on holistic, instead of selective, reforms to ensure wider representation.
For this, a bill on electoral reforms has already been introduced in the National Assembly as the 27th Amendment to the constitution. Its recommendations were prepared with the consensus of a parliamentary committee and subsequently postponed following allegations from the PTI against a team of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that attended the committee to fine-tune its processes.
A long awaited and positive step, the bill still requires critical improvements to ensure the independence and authority of the ECP. The proposed bill unifies all election laws. It proposes improvements to protect the authority of the ECP, promote the political and electoral participation of women and ensure the systematic handling of election-related complaints and election result petitions. It also calls for establishing the right of election observation and providing legal clarity over key issues, such as the caretaker governments, local government elections and the declarations and disclosures required by political parties, legislators and candidates.
There should be no delays on the deliberation of the bill in parliament. There is no other way out. It is only through these structural modes that we can ensure broad-based, all-inclusive and truly credible general elections in Pakistan. Let’s make it the mother of all elections rather than an idiomatic step-mother like previous elections in our country.
The writer is an Islamabad-based
anthropologist and analyst.