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Opinion

Khalid Bhatti
October 13, 2017

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Politics and reforms

Politics and reforms

A number of factors have undermined the integrity of Pakistan’s electoral process over time. Widespread electoral fraud has eroded democratic development, political stability and rule of law. Successive undemocratic regimes have manipulated national, provincial and local polls to centralise power within one sphere and its political allies.

The poorly-managed polling stations and election process are responsible for disenfranchising millions. Polling procedures and codes of conduct are often blatantly disregarded with no consequences for the offenders.

Our history of elections is filled with rigging, fraud, interference and manipulation allegations. All the elections from 1977 to 2013 have been surrounded by controversies and accusations of rigging. The allegations of rigging in 1977 provoked a protest movement and violence. This paved the way for a military intervention that did away with the country’s first elected government. The interference of the establishment was so clear that it was generally believed that the outcome of the election was not the wish or the will of the voters but of the establishment.

The other problem is that electoral politics is confined within the small circle of elite politicians. Elitist electoral politics has already sidelined the working class and even the middle class from participating in the elections. Military regimes introduced electoral politics that is based on clan, caste, sect, tribe, power and money; political leaders and parties followed this path and encouraged this form of politics. The role of the ordinary people has been reduced to casting votes and participating in rallies and public meetings.

Parliament paid much attention to address the issues of electoral fraud, rigging and the empowerment of the Election Commission. This is the first serious effort made by mainstream political parties to strengthen the Election Commission and make the electoral process more transparent. The issue of a list of bogus voters and dual votes had already been addressed. The legal framework to stop malpractice and rigging on election day has been strengthened.

Positive steps have been taken to encourage women voters to cast their ballot. Political parties are bound to give at least five percent of their tickets to female candidates. All these changes and amendments in election laws are positive and must be appreciated. The Election Act 2017 will undoubtedly make the electoral process and the counting of votes more free, fair and transparent for competing candidates. This bill will help reduce the number of complaints that arise from the process. It will also make voting and the counting process more transparent and free.   

Major reforms envisaged in the act include the strengthening of the Election Commission, which would now be fully independent and autonomous. It has been delegated the powers of a high court for specific directions and the administrative powers to control the transfer of election officials and take disciplinary action against them. Full financial powers and powers to make rules without the prior approval of the president have also been granted to the commission. The ECP has been authorised to redress complaints and grievances during various stages of the electoral process (other than challenges to the election itself under Article 225) and its decisions will be appealable to the Supreme Court.

This bill was passed in a highly charged political atmosphere. Two controversies around this bill got all the attention and stopped widespread serious discussion and debate on this legislation. The amendment in the Political Parties Order 2002, which enabled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to retake the presidency of the PML-N, was the focus of the media and the opposition parties. There was also the matter of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat declaration for candidates, which led to a lot of pressure from right-wing parties. Parliament has since restored the original sentences in the declaration.

All this shows that the ruling class either moves quickly for its own interests or when it is under pressure. The ruling class no longer feels any pressure of street agitation from the working class so it ignores their aspirations, demands and wishes. This pressure needs to be restored.

But the other important issues have been left unattended. Nothing has been done to stop or even minimise the role of money in elections. Little has been done to provide an atmosphere in which poor peasants, haris, women, rural poor and sections of the working class can exercise their democratic right without any fear, repression, pressures and undue influence.

The present social, economic and political structure paved the way for the capitalists, big landlords, the rich and tribal chiefs to dominate and manipulate electoral politics. Without radical reforms and fundamental changes in the social, economic and political structure, the working classes cannot get a level-playing field to compete with the elite.

Parliamentary politics is just the democratic continuation of the elite’s crushing domination and power. The political power and domination arise from economic and social hegemony. The feudal lords, capitalists, big businessmen and tribal chiefs own the means of production and wealth. On the basis of their economic power and social position, they dominate electoral politics. Pakistan’s democracy is still an elitist democracy. The people’s democracy – or rather a participatory democracy – is still a distant dream for the people.

Without social transformation – or, at least, by making fundamental and radical changes in the economic and social structure – elections on their own cannot bring an end to this domination. The present electoral reforms are not going to bring any fundamental changes in the parliamentary politics. The ruling elite will continue to flourish at the expense of the working and middle classes.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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