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June 18, 2021

Election matters

 
June 18, 2021

General elections, held every five years under the constitution of Pakistan, stand at the very heart of our democracy. Therefore, any change in the manner in which these are conducted or the mechanisms used to determine matters of the delimitation of constituencies, disqualifications, how voting can be held, the inclusion of overseas Pakistanis and other matters are of extreme importance to every citizen of Pakistan. The objections raised by the Election Commission of Pakistan to the Election (Amendment) Bill 2021, tabled by the PTI and then hurriedly passed, is a matter that should not be ignored. The Bill is not a simple amendment to the constitution of Pakistan and has generated, and will keep generating, controversies. The ECP fears that the bill will reduce its powers as an independent, autonomous body to oversee the conduct of elections. Under the bill, NADRA is to set up the voting lists and conduct the registration of voters. This task has till now, under the 2017 bill, which was passed unanimously in the National Assembly under the PML-N government, rested with the ECP which is the body in charge of handling elections and matters related to it. The fact that the bill went through the National Assembly at a time when very few opposition members were present adds to the controversy. Passing such important laws without any debate is tantamount to flouting all democratic and legislative norms that must be adhered to in parliamentary democracies.

There is also the fact that the ECP's detailed list of concerns about the bill, including what it terms constitutional violations, had been sent in to the committee examining the bill well before it was passed. These were ignored by the government in the passage of the bill through the NA, which must now make its way to the Senate where the opposition holds a much stronger hand. Among the key objections raised by the ECP is the issue of including overseas Pakistanis in the voting process. It points out that this needs to be examined in terms of whether an increase in seats is required and other factors such as how the voting will be conducted. It also raises the issue of how electronic voting machines will be used and if it is possible to utilise them to hold fair and free elections given the weather, loadshedding and other problems. Similar concerns have been raised about conducting delimitation of constituencies on the basis of population size rather than voter lists. The ECP has said that constitutionally the number of voters in an area determine that constituency and its limits. Many voters live in rural areas, but may have an address in an urban setting where they work.

There are at least 72 other objections on the ECP list. The key factor is that the ECP needs to be in charge of the election process, simply because it is an independent and free body not linked in any way to the government. We need a body in charge of elections and the ECP as an independent, autonomous body should at least be heard in the matter rather than simply ignored as powers held by it are handed over to NADRA and a controversial bill allowed to pass through the NA. Even if the government forces its way through the legislative process, the lack of consensus will always keep these laws controversial. Most observers and politicians agree that our electoral system needs reforms, but not the way it is happening now.