Wednesday January 26, 2022

Electoral reforms

December 01, 2021

A genuine concern for democracy and the vote must go beyond the formalism of the process and mechanics of voting – that an electronic voting machine (EVM) addresses – and look at the more substantive issue: how representative is our democracy? And how do we make it even more representative?

Although there is much political bloodletting going on over EVMs, the current circus and cacophony is essentially a contest between political elites and their interests, rather than a genuine concern about the health of our democracy or citizens’ voting rights.

The constitution says that it is the “will of the people” to establish “an order” – the state of Pakistan – and “an egalitarian society”, and it is on “our representatives” to “give to ourselves, this constitution”. As such, it is the citizens who are the locus of political power and authority that they exercise through their “chosen representatives” “[s]o that the people of Pakistan may prosper and attain their rightful and honoured place amongst the nations of the world…”

The constitutional promise is carefully elaborated in the oft-ignored second chapter ‘Principles of Policy’, which sets out constitutional and state goals and objectives. After over 70 years, it is still arguable whether we are even on the promised trajectory.

One critical reason for this is that our democracy and electoral system are not designed to capture and respond to the ‘will of the people’. It thus fails to ascertain the genuine democratic choice as the will of the people. So what if the system is – and indeed it is – rigged in favour of a certain class of persons?

The real choice for representation is narrowed down to a few, and they get repeated election after election – and generation after generation, passed down like inheritance. The result is the elite capture of the political system, which vitiates the genuine ‘will of the people’ – this is the real electoral issue that needs urgent attention.

A healthy democratic space is, in the words of John Stuart Mills, a competitive marketplace of ideas. It is where ideas compete and are rigorously debated, challenged and tested, and those with the highest acceptance are translated into laws and public policies. The hallmark of a healthy democracy is the diversity of the participants engaging and the diversity of ideas flowing into the democratic space, the richer the debate and the more representative the laws and policies, the more inclusive of, and responsive to, society’s concerns, interests and aspirations.

Instead, our democratic and electoral systems perpetuate democratic and electoral exclusion. Our electoral system prohibits the entry of a large majority of citizens who may desire to contest elections. Access to electoral contests and democratic spaces is rendered prohibitive by some entry barriers such as the use of vast sums of money, which, as a key determinant and qualification, has reduced our promised democracy into a kleptocracy – a self-serving system of governance.

Money, effectively, has displaced the constitutional and political norms of fairness and equality. Consequently, there is no equality of opportunity to enter democratic spaces through the current electoral framework. This systemic exclusion is reinforced by political parties that are reluctant to enforce and practice democracy through transparent intra-party elections. Consequently, unlike genuine political parties, they resist expanding the democratic space through internal party and local government elections. They also fail to produce diverse and vibrant ideas, are unable to articulate and protect society’s wider concerns and interests, and, critically, have failed to generate and renew political leadership that is genuinely representative of society.

As such, our political parties are ‘elite clubs’, serving to protect their members’ interests, which are corrosive for the development of a healthy democratic culture, and extract a high cost in terms of the quality of leadership and governance that they provide.

Much of this explains the deteriorating quality of leadership and its performance. The same political families get elected time after time, and their ideas and policies, which hardly deal with increasing inequality levels in society and the problem of the concentration of power, opportunities and wealth in few hands, keep circulating. It seems that these families have become the ‘gatekeepers’ of our systems of democracy and governance.

They have produced an economic system that reflects this composition and their interests – what Dr Ishrat Hussain identified by his book title ‘Pakistan: The Economy of an Elitist State’. It is socially and economically exorbitant, a liability to society.

It is only when there is genuine equality of opportunity to enter the electoral race and access to democratic spaces that there can be a genuinely representative democracy, where citizens can choose from the widest and most-inclusive electoral panel.

To return to an electoral framework that is in keeping with constitutional values and commitments, we need to ensure that it is responsive to equality of citizens (Article 25) and equality of opportunity. Formal and informal barriers to entry and access to electoral contests and democratic spaces need to be dismantled; a level playing field must be ensured to provide a fair contest, and an enabling framework created so that the majority have a reasonable opportunity to participate in our democratic and political systems of governance.

A level playing field for all is a question of both the design of the electoral contest and the process and mechanics of the elections. The former touches on the fairness of the electoral system and how to ascertain society’s democratic choice. For some, our first-past-the-post system does not secure majority endorsement and therefore needs to be reformed.

An EVM only deals with the process and mechanics, with the promise of greater integrity through a secure paper trail that may subsequently be verified by the Election Commission of Pakistan – a worthwhile objective but a claim that needs to be tested and verified.

Returning to the substantive issues, the constitutionally guaranteed choice to select ‘chosen representatives’ – exercised through the right to vote – has been greatly restricted, thereby managed within a certain select range of society, which draws into question the very fairness and representative quality of our so-called ‘representatives’ and democracy. It also means there is no free and open choice – the right to vote has been substantively compromised, vitiated by the electoral process confining choice to a select few.

To that extent, citizens stand disenfranchised effectively. But, unfortunately, the ruling and political elites are determined to keep these issues out of the public debate, where civil society must take up this slack to widen the political debate.

To ensure the real ‘izzat’ of votes, citizens must be treated as the effective locus of political power and authority, and the ‘will of the people’, exercised through their democratic choice, jealously guarded. The fairness and integrity of the democratic choice must also be protected both substantively and procedurally.

Only more open, participative and inclusive democratic and political spaces and systems can ensure a stable state and society – the prerequisite for development, growth and prosperity. It is about time we demonstrated sincerity and focused on genuine electoral reforms to turn the state and society onto a positive trajectory – which begins by turning political and democratic exclusion into political and democratic inclusion, where the right to vote is a meaningful exercise of political power and authority.

In the scheme of things, the political bickering over EVMs is petty; ruling elites, refusing to address the real issues of significance that our democratic and electoral systems, are badly failing to meet the constitutional standards of “equality of status, of opportunity and before law, social, economic and political justice”. Vote ko izzat do!

The writer is a former secretary, Law & Justice Commission of Pakistan.