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January 4, 2015

The worst electoral system


January 4, 2015


At a press conference in Lahore on December 11, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal asked Imran to send his party’s representatives to the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms which was set up in July last year mainly in response to the PTI’s demand. The party has not been attending its meetings since the ‘Long March’ on Islamabad last August.
Ahsan Iqbal also asserted that “there are no disagreements [between the PML-N and PTI] over electoral reforms”. But he did not reveal exactly what electoral reforms the PML-N is seeking. In fact, all indications are that the ruling party only wants a bit of tinkering with the present system to remove some of its more obvious kinks but without changing its essential features. This is confirmed by Ishaq Dar’s remark that the main task before the parliamentary committee will be to consolidate all existing election laws into one piece of legislation and to make arrangements for the use of the latest technology in conducting future elections.
One form of the ‘latest technology’ the electoral reform committee has been considering is the use of the electronic voting machine (EVM). But as the Election Commission told the parliamentary committee last November, EVMs are just as prone to fraud, if not more so, as traditional polling methods. It is for this reason that very few countries have adopted EVMs.
The present electoral system, which was bequeathed to us by our colonial rulers, has been so perverted over the years that it now only serves the interests of our parasitical ruling class. The apologists for this system are often heard arguing that if elections under this system are held over and over again, it will improve by itself. Yet all empirical evidence points to the contrary. The truth is that with each election, the hold of big money, whether of the old landowning class or the new business and industrialist class, has been getting stronger and the general public is fast losing confidence in the

Many of the political parties have recently been paying lip service to the idea of electoral reform. Yet almost all of them, including the PTI, have failed to come up with a comprehensive and coherent reform proposal. The PTI’s entire focus is on the formation of a judicial commission and it remains unclear what kind of electoral reform it is seeking. Like other parties, it does not seem to have done any homework on the subject. This is confirmed by Imran’s flip-flops on two issues.
First, in December 2012, he spoke out against reserving seats for women, pointing out quite rightly that those women who have not even contested elections cannot claim to be their representatives. Second, in February 2014, he indirectly criticised, again quite rightly, the system of indirect elections for senators. He was criticised on both occasions and quickly backtracked.
The Jamaat-e-Islami is in fact the only party to have made a precise proposal on electoral reform. It has demanded the introduction of proportional representation and called for completing the process of electoral reform before the next parliamentary elections. Opposition leader Khursheed Shah has proposed a four-year term for the assemblies but as a personal idea rather than one from his party, the PPP.
There are a number of serious flaws in our electoral system but the one that stands out as the most pernicious is without doubt the first-past-the-post (FPTP) or relative majority system for election to the assemblies. The Electoral Reform Society of Britain, an independent advocacy group which campaigns for better democracy in that country, grades FPTP as “the very worst system for electing a representative government”. And it is. It is especially ill-suited for a diverse, multi-ethnic country like Pakistan in which one province has more population than all the others combined. Many of the ills of our political system can in fact be directly or indirectly traced it.
The FPTP system is a legacy of British colonial rule, not only in Pakistan but in many other former colonies like the US, Canada, Australia and India. Many of the countries which took it from Britain have discarded it in favour of some form of proportional representation. Britain too held a referendum in 2011 to replace it with another form of majoritarian system, the ‘Alternative Vote’, but the proposal was defeated by the voters. Nevertheless, the campaign for reform continues. Even in Britain, elections to the European Parliament and to the three devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are held under some form of proportional representation.
The arguments against the FTPT system are many. In its judgement in the Workers Party case (2011), the Supreme Court gave only one: that when there are more than two candidates, it often results in the election of a candidate who gets the most votes but who has been rejected by the majority of the voters. The Supreme Court therefore proposed a system of run-off vote. Under this system, if no one wins 50 percent of the vote, a second round of voting is held in which only the top two are on the ballot and the candidate who wins the most votes is elected.
A second and even bigger problem with FPTP is that of disconnect between a party’s share of the total vote and the parliamentary seats it wins. In general, FPTP gives a bigger share of seats to the larger parties than their share of the total vote and a smaller share of the seats to the smaller parties than their share of the overall votes. The smallest parties in particular are placed at a great disadvantage. Under this system, it is also not uncommon that a party which gets the most votes does not win the most seats.
The disconnect between votes and seats is illustrated by the results of the 2013 elections in which PML-N won a ‘heavy mandate’. The party got 33 percent of the popular votes, mainly in Punjab but, because of the distortions produced by the FPTP system, it won 49 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, giving it a virtual monopoly of power at the federal level with the support of a few independents. The PTI won 17 percent votes – about half the number obtained by the PML-N – but only one-fifth of the seats secured by the winning party. With 15 percent of the votes, the PPP was two points behind the PTI in popular votes but it obtained 12 percent more seats.
Among other evils, FPTP ‘wastes’ the votes cast for losing candidates, encourages gerrymandering and promotes voting on biradari lines. This is bad enough but what is worse is that FPTP also produces two other harmful consequences which are peculiar to Pakistan.
First, because FPTP gives a disproportionately high number of seats to the larger parties, it tends to produce single-party governments – like the present PML-N government – which do not have to rely on support from other parties. A single-party government might be good for a homogenous country but not for a diverse country like Pakistan, especially one in which one province outnumbers all others combined and where most parties have their centre of gravity in one province. Because of our ethnic and linguistic diversity, we need broad-based coalition governments in which the interests of different parties and provinces have to be balanced against each other and every partner gets due weightage.
Second, because FPTP gives a disproportionately low number of seats to the smaller parties, it tends to squeeze them out from provinces which are not perceived as being their ‘home’. Because of this phenomenon, the PML-N has been virtually decimated in Sindh while the PPP is facing a bleak future in Punjab. This is not a healthy development because we need parties with a nation-wide footprint that can serve as bridges between different provinces and ethnicities.
For all these reasons, scrapping FPTP must be the first order of business in any genuine electoral reform. If we delay taking this step, we will be allowing a slow poisoning of the country’s political atmosphere.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]




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