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May 2, 2021

Electoral reforms

Editorial

 
May 2, 2021

In a country where Form 45 has almost become a political term; where the counting of less than 100,000 votes can take hours; and where not a single election has been untainted by accusations of the euphemistically termed ‘foul play’, it is odd that the ‘electoral reforms’ buzzword has been bandied about but not really been taken up seriously. It has been obvious for some time that Pakistan’s crumbling electoral system is in need of reform. In fact, over the past decades, almost all political parties have talked about electoral reform as the essential ingredient to make the electoral system more representative and fair. Unfortunately, little has been done other than the occasional bouts of hand-wringing over the need for such reforms. Now the recent by-elections in Daska and in NA-249 in Karachi, each with their own controversies, have drawn further attention on the need to focus on ideally building a consensus between all political parties on electoral reforms. This may not be easy, but it is necessary. Just before Election 2018, a small step was taken to introduce some election reform via the Election Bill 2017. The bill had some undoubted positives, but the reforms were dwarfed by what the bill did not tackle: the issue of votes of overseas Pakistanis; balloting by mail; the eternal question of political financing and so on.

While the political road to electoral reforms may be full of twists and turns, experts that have studied reforms are mostly agreed on some bare minimums that need to be kept in mind when undertaking this process. Any reform must include a check on the manner in which officials are appointed at the administrative levels in constituencies where a poll is due; this was tackled in previous legislation as well and needs to be implemented. Perhaps the most important of all is the power and autonomy of the Election Commission of Pakistan. Without an independent ECP, elections are doomed to controversy. The current code of conduct already in place for elections in Pakistan too needs to be reviewed; it is an important part of a fair and representative election, since rules regarding spending fall under it. Needless to say, a fair election must allow every eligible Pakistani citizen to contest the polls as well as to use the power of the vote. Other electoral challenges include the printing of ballots and protecting them from the point they are transported to polling booths to the phase where they are counted. Missing returning officers and crashing RTS’ will certainly have to be a thing of the past if any serious reform is to take place. This is where the much-touted Electronic Voting system comes in. The government has been advocating for switching to electronic voting machines (EVMs) for some time now; in fact, the prime minister too has only a day back tweeted about the need to introduce EVMs. While in principle the concept sounds fairer, some kinks may have to be resolved before it is put in practice. For one, the ECP has doubts over EVM use, citing a pilot study that showed technical issues and people’s scepticism over the accuracy of the machines. There is also the matter of legislation that will need to be enacted for EVM use.

There have justifiably been concerns among political observers that people’s trust in democracy and the electoral process has dwindled considerably by the mishandling of both the recent by-elections. There is plenty of work to be done then. And all of it will require all political parties to sit on the same table and agree on the reforms. There is no point in any reform if there is no political consensus around it. The electoral malpractices we have witnessed recently do not only require reforms on paper; they also call for political will on the part of all major political parties. Good ethical and political attitudes are a prerequisite for such reforms. When institutions that should be entirely non-partisan display explicit or implicit partisanship, no functional democracy can come into being. Electoral reforms – much like efforts at accountability or any other well-meaning initiative – will only work if they are not used as a red herring by any stakeholder in the process. A strong belief in upholding the constitution is what has led to governments in other parliamentary democracies to follow free and transparent elections, no matter how much acrimony exists among parties. That is the kind of adherence to constitutional principles, electoral rules and the law of the land that we need in Pakistan. If we cannot ensure a fair and free election, conducted by an impartial body, we cannot claim to be a democracy. In this, parliamentary channels are the best forums for initiating a discussion on electoral reforms; mere press statements will not be of much help.