Tuesday September 26, 2023

Beyond electoral reforms

There have been demands for introducing extensive electoral reforms in the country since the PTI levelled serious allegations regarding electoral rigging against the PML-N following the 2013 general elections. Now, talk on reforms has somehow intensified as the Judicial Commission has also formally pointed out many electoral irregularities in the

August 02, 2015
There have been demands for introducing extensive electoral reforms in the country since the PTI levelled serious allegations regarding electoral rigging against the PML-N following the 2013 general elections.
Now, talk on reforms has somehow intensified as the Judicial Commission has also formally pointed out many electoral irregularities in the last general elections in its final report. Headed by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, a Parliamentary Committee for Electoral Reforms (PCER), in collaboration with other opposition parties, is also trying to work out some necessary electoral reforms to ensure a better electoral regime in the country.
Generally, the term electoral reform is employed primarily to denote some fundamental changes in an electoral system. It often involves matters like voter’s eligibility, universal suffrage, women’s suffrage, disenfranchisement, proportional representation or first-past-the-post system, recall election, election silence and secret ballot etc. Pakistan is hardly confronted with any significant issue of this nature. Instead, it necessarily requires a competent and vibrant election body to ensure free and transparent elections in the country.
Besides ensuring its independence, the constitution of Pakistan clearly defines the composition, powers and functions of the Election Commission of Pakistan. In fact, legally, the ECP is one of the most powerful and independent election bodies in the world. The election commissioners enjoy security of their offices just like the judges of the superior courts in Pakistan. Under Article 220 of the constitution, all the executive authorities in the federation and provinces are bound to assist election commissioners in the discharge of their duty. Similarly, it is the primary duty of the interim government to assist the ECP in holding free and fair elections in the country.
The Representation of People Act, 1976 is an exhaustive piece of law which deals with various aspects of the

electoral process in detail. It clearly elaborates the procedural matters regarding the conduct of election, dispute-resolution mechanism, qualifications and code of conduct for the individual candidates. It also provides punishments and penalties for the violation of electoral laws. This law enumerates certain procedural formalities to ensure fair and transparent conduct of the elections. Providing guidelines for the preparation and consolidation of election results, it requires the presiding officers to prepare and transmit Form XIV (Statement of Count) and Form XV (Ballot Paper Account) to Returning Officers. The Returning Officers are further bound to transmit Form XVI (Consolidated Statement of Count) and Form XVII (Result of the Count) to the ECP.
The Electoral Roll Act, 1974 and the Delimitation of Constituencies Act, 1974 significantly empower the ECP to prepare and revise electoral rolls, and to make crucial decisions regarding the delimitation of constituencies for election to the national and provincial assemblies. Therefore, at present, Pakistan essentially possesses a comprehensive legal framework to ensure free and fair elections in the country.
It only lacks institutional capacity and political will to effectively enforce these electoral laws. Therefore, instead of striving for electoral reforms, we should make some serious efforts for the effective and efficient enforcement of the existing electoral laws and regulations, and plugging the administrative loopholes present within our electoral system.
Electoral maladies, like rigging and manipulation of election results, can be cured by ensuring better election management in the country. First of all, there should be more focus on the management of the polling day. The ECP must take some pragmatic steps to ensure the security of the voters and polling staff at polling stations, free and smooth running of the polling process, and finally transmitting of the election material to ROs. All this process necessarily requires an effective administrative apparatus. Therefore, all the DROs, ROs and POs should be made answerable directly to the ECP for their electoral functions.
We have found our law-enforcement agencies, namely the police, to be particularity incapable to meet the challenges of the Election Day. The political culture and general dynamic of politics in the country necessarily warrant the presence of some effective deterrent. In fact, only the military and paramilitary personnel can serve this purpose effectively. Therefore, the ECP must seek the help of military and paramilitary troops to avoid any kind of foul-play on Election Day. Beside this, to overcome certain resource deficiencies, the elections can also be held in different phases, as is always done in India.
In its final report, the JC has enumerated certain electoral irregularities committed by the ECP, PECs, DROs, ROs and POs during the last general elections. It necessarily questioned the vary capacity of the ECP to conduct credible and non-controversial elections in the country. Before the 2013 general elections, the ECP had constantly been propagating its resolve, capacity and commitment to conduct ‘free, fair and transparent’ elections. Sadly, all these assertions proved utterly wrong at the end of the day. All political parties, including the PTI, expressed full confidence in the professional capabilities of then Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G Ebrahim. No political party ever bothered to ascertain the institutional capacity of the ECP to smoothly conduct these elections at that time.
Last year, the ECP unveiled its second five-year Strategic Plan 2014-2018. Under this plan, it intends to introduce Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) to ensure transparency in the next general election, due in 2018. Currently, only a few countries, like Brazil, Germany and India, are completely relying on the electronic voting system. Even most of the advanced European countries still don’t consider this system as reliable and credible. Owing to lack of testing, absence of certification, inadequate audit procedure and certain other shortcomings, this system is always vulnerable to fraud and errors. Therefore, we should exercise due care and caution while making any decision regarding introducing EVMs.
The much-trumpeted biometrics system has given rise to more confusions and controversies instead of ensuring transparency in the 2013 general elections. Ending up with one of most controversial elections in the history of the country, the ECP’s last Strategic Plan 2010-2014 has also proved to be a damp squib. Therefore, instead of formulating academic strategies and ideal plans before the elections, and publishing post-election review reports afterwards, the ECP should devise pragmatic plans to ensure better election management.
At the same time, instead of being obsessed with electoral reforms only, the government should focus on improving the efficiency and institutional capacity of its premier election body – the ECP. Unlike past practice, this body should be headed by an active, competent and dynamic person to ensure strict compliance of the electoral laws and regulations in Pakistan.
The writer is a Lahore-based lawyer.