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Opinion

March 16, 2015

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In all its ugliness

The three-yearly election to the Senate, which had filled the air with revelations of corruption and vote-buying, ended somewhat tamely last week with a flurry of self-congratulatory verbiage spouted by nearly all the main actors over the ‘successful’ completion of another step in consolidating democracy in the country.
The crowning act of the drama was the election to the post of Senate chairman of someone who had made headlines two months earlier by shedding tears of remorse for having lacked the moral courage to vote against a constitutional amendment authorising the setting up of military courts to try civilians accused of terrorism. This man now vowed pompously to “strengthen democracy, guard the sovereignty of parliament and ensure supremacy of the constitution”. Other distinguished members of the august house joined in the accolades to themselves for their meritorious services to democracy.
Not surprisingly, the people of Pakistan greeted these soul-stirring events with a collective shrug, if not disdain – and for good reason. First, they had no say in the elections, whose outcome was largely scripted by unelected party heads. Second, the common man is already inured to the misdeeds of the political class. Third, the election was a striking display of the deep flaws of the country’s electoral system in all its ugliness and of the way it has been perverted further by the political mafia. All the main characters in this sordid show – the government, the Election Commission and the political parties – share the responsibility to a greater or lesser degree.
First, the government. It was prepared even to break the sacrosanct principles of the secrecy of the ballot and of the right of each individual to vote freely according to his own judgement. The government’s proposal for open voting was aimed supposedly at discouraging vote-buying but its real purpose was to kill dissent and to make sure that everyone voted according to the party

leader’s wishes.
Fortunately, because of the PML-N’s failure to win the support of the PPP, the government had to drop the idea. The PPP declined its support ostensibly on the ground that the proposal had been made at a very late stage in the election process but in reality because it did not want to help the PML-N win a victory in the election. The PPP left open the possibility of supporting the proposal if it was revived after the Senate election.
Having failed to push the proposal through, the government tried another trick. Through the Senate (Election of Members from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) Order issued by the president on the prime minister’s advice, the government sought to change the procedure for the election of Senators from Fata in its favour. The Order was issued in the early hours of March 5 only hours before the voting was to begin and was received by the Returning Officer after polling had actually begun, leaving him with no choice but to postpone the vote.
But the order was not published in the official gazette and was not made available to the general public. This must be the most outrageous example of government secretiveness and skulduggery. It is the first known instance of the government trying to enforce a law which the public is not supposed to know about, and is itself proof of the fact that the government was up to some hanky-panky.
According to information that has trickled through to the media, the order repealed an earlier one issued by Musharraf in 2002 and stipulated that each of the Fata MNAs would cast one vote only for the election of Senators, unlike the previous method under which they had four votes, i.e. one for each of the four contested seats in the Senate. The new order divided Fata into eight Senate constituencies: the seven agencies and the Frontier Regions (FR). Since the four sitting senators are from Mohmand, Bajaur and Orakzai agencies and Tank (FR), the order restricted the race to candidates from the four remaining agencies of South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Kurram and Khyber.
The government also failed to consult Fata representatives (except those supporting the PML-N) and other political parties before issuing the order. It did not even seek the views of the law ministry.
The only justification given by the government for introducing the change was that the old voting system had been introduced by a military dictator in 2002. That too is a misstatement because it was actually first introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1975.
But despite the fact that the government’s motives for issuing the order were dishonest, it is true that a reform of the old system for election of Fata senators is overdue, though not of the kind that the government sought to impose. The main fault of the system is that it enables a majority of the Fata MNAs to group together to capture all the Senate seats for their cronies and relatives, while denying even a single seat to the others. This is exactly what the majority group of Fata MNAs had planned to do. Their leader told a newspaper that the four candidates they were supporting were all relatives of MNAs who would be voting.
What the government should have done is to replace this winner-takes-all system with proportional representation by single transferable vote, as for the four provinces. But having lost the race to capture the chairmanship of the Senate, Nawaz has now given up on all thought of reforming the system of election for Fata senators. Last Friday, the government repealed the controversial order and ‘revived’ the old system.
As for the role of the Election Commission in the Senate elections, it was right on one count, wrong on the second and half-right half-wrong on the third.
It was right to suspend voting for Fata senators upon the last-minute issuance of the presidential order. A notification issued by the Election Commission called the order “utterly ambiguous, self-contradictory and derogatory (sic) to the law under which the [election] schedule was announced”. The commission also said that the new polling date would be announced “after when (sic) the anomalies are finally settled”. Though the decisions were right, the commission clearly needs to pay more attention to the vocabulary and grammar of the English language, or better still, drop it in favour of Urdu.
On the second count, the Election Commission was wrong in looking on passively while the whole country was talking about vote-buying before the Senate election. Besides persistent reports in the media that huge amounts of money were being offered, some individuals claimed publicly that they had been offered money. Yet the Election Commission took no action.
On the third count, namely breach of the secrecy of the ballot, the Election Commission has done well to order that all record and ballot boxes of Senate election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should be brought to it for a probe into the allegation that some MPAs belonging to the PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami had smuggled out their ballots to show that they had marked them according to the party’s directives. But the commission has so far done nothing to enquire into allegations that in the Punjab Assembly, the polling agents had been tasked by the PML-N leadership to monitor how their MPAs voted.
Political parties like the PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami, which have been in the forefront of the campaign to stop vote-buying, also have a moral and political duty to bring specific cases of such crimes to the attention of the Election Commission and demand investigation. Their reluctance to do so can only hurt their credibility. Especially damaging to the PTI leader is his refusal to divulge the name of the “sharif insaan” who he says offered him Rs150 million for a party ticket for the Senate.
Now that the Senate election is over and these two parties have achieved their immediate targets, it is important for them to focus on the bigger issues of electoral reform. There are two steps in particular that are essential: the introduction of proportional representation in the national and provincial assemblies; and direct elections, also through some form of proportional representation, for the Senate.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]

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