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March 2, 2015

Don’t play with the ballot


March 2, 2015


Last week the Nawaz government announced two proposals which if adopted would practically complete the transformation of the Senate from an elected chamber representing the constituent units of the federation – which is what it was designed to be – into one representing the political parties and nominated by the party heads.
First, the government declared on Monday that it would be introducing a constitutional amendment to replace the secret ballot for election to the upper house with an open vote that will be on public record. Second, it was revealed on Wednesday that the proposed constitutional amendment will also make the anti-defection clause of the constitution applicable to the election of the Senate. That means that those voting against the wishes of the party leader in the election to the Senate will do so on pain of losing their seat.
These proposals fly in the face of two sacrosanct principles of democracy: (a) the secrecy of the ballot; and (b) the freedom of the voter to follow his own judgement or conscience in making his choice. Besides, the sheer incompetence shown by the government on this issue, as manifested in its initial proposal for a vote by show of hand, which is simply not possible under the system of single transferable vote mandated by the constitution for Senate elections, is another serious cause for concern.
At the meeting of heads of parliamentary parties last Friday, the PML-N failed to win the PPP’s support which is essential for the passage of the proposed constitutional amendment by parliament. But the proposal has not yet been buried formally, which is the fate it deserves.
The justification being given by the government for it is that it will discourage ‘horse trading’, ensure ‘transparency’ and put a stop to rampant vote buying. This is pure humbug.
‘Horse trading’, which only means hard or shrewd bargaining in the pursuit of one’s interests, is an inescapable part of democracy and is

perfectly legitimate so long as it does not involve the exchange of money.
The government’s claim that the proposed constitutional amendments will bring about ‘transparency’ is equally misleading. In an election, transparency means first and foremost that the voter should be able to cast his vote without fear or favour.
The government’s assertion that open voting will put a stop to vote buying is also highly questionable. In fact, it might do the exact opposite. As long as the ballot remains secret, the person who pays money to buy a vote cannot be sure whether he actually got what he had paid for. This uncertainty acts to some extent as a check on vote buying. But this constraint would be removed if there was open voting and the ballots showing the voters choices were made available to the public.
The right way to fight vote buying is not to abolish the secret ballot but to expose those who commit the crime and bring them to justice. It will certainly not be easy to procure evidence to convict everyone who is guilty but if exemplary punishment is given to some, it will serve as a deterrent to others who are similarly inclined.
In recent days, some political leaders, among them Imran and Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq, have publicly made allegations of vote buying in the forthcoming Senate elections. Imran has also said that he was offered a donation of Rs150 million for the Shaukat Khanum Hospital in Peshawar in return for a Senate ticket.
These are very serious charges. The least that one would expect is that those who make them would file complaints with the Election Commission. Yet, regrettably, none of them has done so. No less regrettable, the Election Commission has also not seen it fit to bestir itself into action and ask the accusers for evidence to substantiate the charges. It is this policy of laissez-faire that more than anything else encourages the vote-buyers to continue with their sordid activities.
Nawaz too at first adopted a ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ attitude to reports of vote-buying that have been circulating for quite some time. He decided to take action only after his effort to get his candidates elected unopposed by making deals with the other parties did not bear fruit. His real motives for proposing the abolition of the secret ballot are by no means as noble as his spokesmen are trying to make out.
First, the aim is to suppress dissent within his party that has been brewing for some time and has now come out in the open due to dissatisfaction at the allocation of party tickets to a closed circle of cronies and courtiers. This is true not only for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan but also for Punjab, the PML-N’s heartland. Nawaz senses that if these incipient rumblings of discontent are not nipped in the bud, they could blossom into a full-fledged rebellion against the Sharif clan’s hold over the party.
In his plan to silence the dissenters, Nawaz has found an ally in arch-foe Imran, who faces an even more serious problem. It is common knowledge that there is a sizeable dissident group of the PTI in the KP Assembly. In addition, there are reports that the loyalties of some of the party’s MPAs are being severely tested by the lure of money on offer for their votes. The PTI has set itself a goal of six seats and if it wins less than five, its standing in the whole country will be compromised.
Like the PML-N and PTI, the PPP also does not tolerate any dissent in its ranks. In the Senate elections in 2012 it got one seat less than its expected share in Punjab because some unidentified rebels in its ranks did not vote for the party’s candidate. But in the upcoming elections, the PPP has already made a deal with the MQM that will give it seven out of the 11 seats from Sindh. In the other provinces, it stands virtually no chance of winning a seat. The PPP is therefore in the happy position of not having to join Sharif for abolishing the secrecy of ballot to discipline the dissenters.
The second reason why Nawaz is pushing for an open vote is that it throws up the prospect of mending fences with Imran. The PTI was the first party to call for a vote by ‘show of hands’, and by conceding this demand the PML-N now hopes that it will be able to persuade Imran to return to the National Assembly and give up any plans for street agitation to press for early Parliamentary elections.
Third, the contest between the PPP and the PML-N for the post of chairman of the incoming Senate promises to be close and the vote of the PTI senators will be crucial in deciding the outcome. By accepting Imran’s demand for a ‘show-of-hands’ vote and making it his own, Nawaz hopes that the PTI will at least not side with the PPP in the chairman’s election.
Clearly, the constitutional amendments proposed by the PML-N have been made with only the party’s narrow interests and the forthcoming Senate elections in view. They do not touch the real issues of electoral reform that the country badly needs to address. The adoption of Nawaz’s proposals will only introduce a new, deeply flawed, highly controversial and untested method of voting while doing nothing to remove the many serious defects in the present electoral system.
What the country actually needs is a comprehensive and thorough restructuring of the electoral system to make our parliament and provincial legislatures truly representative of the people. This is something that should have been taken up by the parliamentary committee on electoral reform which was set up last July. But that committee has failed abysmally in carrying out the task assigned to it and should be sent packing without further delay.
Electoral reform in any case is far too important a matter to be left to professional politicians alone and needs to be thoroughly debated in public. It is to be hoped that Nawaz’s ill-conceived move to abolish the secret ballot for the Senate elections will now kick off that discussion.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]




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