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October 19, 2016

Reforming electoral processes


October 19, 2016

Two key factors have ensured that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) continues to remain archaic and ineffective. First, a truly reformed, efficient and effective ECP will methodically scrutinise and disqualify many of those who have been taking turns to rule this country. Hence it would be unnatural for the beneficiaries of the current system to initiate improvements that will destroy their own prospects for power and plunder.

Second, the ECP remains an extension of Pakistan’s dysfunctional colonial bureaucracy, which has lost both capacity and will to reform or improve itself.

It may be safe to predict that the 2018 election will follow the infamous footsteps of its forerunners – retaining all their shortcomings and weaknesses. Nothing has been learnt from the past. The proposed electoral reforms never went beyond files and folders. Faulty voter lists, rigging, bogus votes, missing or extra ballot papers, multiple voting and failure to disqualify delinquent candidates would once again hound the 2018 election. As always, the people of Pakistan will be the greatest sufferers and the rulers shall end up as the largest beneficiaries.

The electoral processes remain frozen in time. The ECP goes through the same mechanical motions like V S Naipaul’s four men washing down the steps of a sleazy hotel. The first pours water from a bucket, the second scratches the tiles with a twig broom, the third uses a rag to slop the dirty water down the steps into another bucket, which is held by the fourth. After they have passed, the steps are as dirty as before.

Consider for example, the latest irrelevance of establishing over 11,000 ‘Display Centres’ all across the country from September 20 to October 10. The display centres were ostensibly intended to improve quality by providing citizens an opportunity to correct, transfer or delete wrong entries on the rolls. A sample survey carried out in Karachi to determine the efficacy and functioning of these centres yielded painfully disappointing results.   

Almost half of the ‘display centres’ mentioned on the ECP website were simply not there on the ground. Clearly the concept of ‘ghost’ schools has discovered newer markets. When contacted, six out of ten individuals whose names were mentioned against various display centres showed complete ignorance of any such activity taking place. Many phone numbers mentioned on the ECP website were either incorrect or not in anyone’s use. Sixty random citizens from various walks of life were asked if they knew of the ECP’s Display Centre initiative. Fifty eight had absolutely no clue.

So why did the ECP create this massive façade at a huge cost, time and effort. The Electoral Rolls Act 1974 calls for establishing ‘display’ and not ‘ghost’ centres. It is obvious that the ECP was interested only in the formality of the law and not its spirit or its outcome. Why was the entire exercise carried out with such inadequate publicity that most citizens had no inkling about it? Why did the ECP have no mechanism of finding out if the declared ‘display centres’ actually existed on the ground or not?

The ECP finds it impossible to purify its highly questionable voter lists. Why does it not occur to the ECP that the intended outcomes of the display centres (correction, addition, deletion) can be easily achieved by using mobile phone technology that has been around for over two decades. On the pattern of ‘8300’, another short code SMS could provide options for ‘Addition’, ‘Deletion’ and ‘Correction’.

Any citizen from any location could avail these three options, without going to any office or ‘Display Centre’ and without filling any of those complicated fancy Forms A, B and C. The ECP (and the rest of the bureaucracy) ought to learn that the colonial practice of visiting government offices involves fuel, time, misery and humiliation – and can be easily avoided.

While there appears to be some progress on electronic voting machines (EVMs), there are other issues such as biometric verification, voting by overseas Pakistanis, processes to scrutinise contestants’ eligibility (prior to elections), spreading the elections over 15 to 20 days, proportionate representation, provision for negative voting, enabling citizens the freedom to vote from any city and training of polling officers on EVMs that need to be addressed many years ahead of 2018.

Regrettably there is little or no progress on these basic issues. Parliament and the ECP would be collectively responsible if electoral reforms are not instituted well before the next election.

The writer is a management systems consultant. Email: [email protected]



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