We have to move cautiously to maintain the spirit of electoral reforms for the benefit and prosperity of all stakeholders
ollowing a history of irregularities in the electoral exercise, we appear to have lost contact with the spirit of electoral reforms, focusing merely on procedural interventions to ensure transparent elections. Our concern about procedural lacunae is not without reason.
I personally witnessed several irregularities in elections at the grassroots level during the 1990s. I remember joining a colleague to be a polling agent of another colleague contesting an election for the NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) provincial assembly. We were placed at the home station of one of the candidates expected to win; our candidate was not among them. After the lunch break, there was a huge uproar outside. We were told that we had to leave the polling station because a candidate wanted to ensure that all votes on the list were cast in his favour and that the polling staff were in connivance.
Initially, I resisted the pressure but when it came to guns I left the polling station with my colleague. This is a firsthand account. I was witness also to other kinds of rigging, including some that are still practiced. These include a failure by the polling staff to certify vote counts, counting behind closed doors and destroying votes cast in favour of a popular candidate. In one instance, nearly 10,000 votes were double stamped in a Karachi constituency to change the result.
Such instances lend weight to the importance of electoral reforms to eliminate operational and procedural problems but there is a need to also consider some other aspects to strengthen the democratic norms and establish a genuine democracy according to our ground realities.
The effort should be to establish the importance of the vote. According to Joshua A Douglas of the University of Kentucky, “Voting is the foundational concept for our entire democratic structure. We think of voting as a fundamental – the most fundamental – right in our democracy. When a group of citizens collectively elects its representatives, it affirms the notion that we govern ourselves by free choice. An individual’s right to vote ties that person to our social order, even if that person chooses not to exercise that right. Voting represents the beginning; everything else in our democracy follows the right to vote. Participation is more than just a value. It is a foundational virtue of our democracy.”
It is indeed frustrating for the people to see their votes go in vain as was the case in the previous elections. In 2018, the PTI polled about 32 percent of the votes and the mainstream opposition nearly 42 percent. The rest of the votes were cast for less popular parties that got no representation in the parliament. Therefore, we need to find ways to eliminate the general distress of the voter through electoral reforms for inclusive governments.
The effort should be to establish the importance of the vote. According to Joshua A Douglas from the University of Kentucky, “Voting is the foundational concept for our entire democratic structure. We think of voting as a fundamental – the most fundamental – right in our democracy.”
It is important that all factions of the society are represented in the parliament. This should include groups and parties popular in parts of Balochistan, the recently merged tribal districts of the KP, southern Punjab and the sectarian and ethnic groups that have never had a say in national policies. It is important to develop a system that assimilates all these components of our society.
The current electoral system does not even make the Senate more representative of the provinces. The very purpose of the Upper House was to ensure equitable representation of the provinces but the mechanism has failed to accommodate all communities of the provinces because the members who make it to the provincial assemblies on the basis of majority votes elect members of the Senate.
We have a history of decades of extremism stemming mostly from the exclusion of smaller groups from the mainstream due to their specific ethnic or sectarian approaches. These groups never stop propagating their views. Probably, this is one of the good things about democracy that everyone is allowed to live with his/ her thoughts and preferences.
The existence and local prevalence of these parties and clusters can’t be denied. Their exclusion from power corridors has allowed foreign elements to pursue their agendas in the country. Our establishment has remained busy to coining counter narratives to curb foreign interventions. Probably, the most effective strategy is to ensure inclusion of smaller parties and groups in the mainstream democratic processes through electoral reforms. They cannot be eliminated using the existing policies.
Considering these aspects of the problem, it is appropriate to suggest an electoral system based on proportional representation. This can probably provide a remedy to several deep-rooted ailments of our electoral landscape. This can ensure that every vote counts and eliminate extremism from politics and the society. It can also encourage coalition building and collaboration, to enhance turn-out and reduce voter apathy.
A switch to proportional representation will require extensive brainstorming to determine the most appropriate type of electoral mechanism. In a closed party-list system voters have no say in the selection of candidates. This may not be a suitable option in our context. The idea that voters only vote for a party and that the party then makes the list of successful candidates can be seen as a new form of totalitarianism.
An open party-list system allows the voters to influence the order in which candidates from party will be elected. Ranked voting provides an opportunity to the voters to rank their candidates in a sequence and also accommodates transfer of votes to other constituencies. A mixed member system provides an opportunity to the voters to elect the representative for their constituency as well as vote for their preferred political party.
It is, indeed, a matter which needs attention and scholarly reflection to bring electoral reforms to Pakistan. No system is without its limitations. Proportional representation too is subject to several challenges, including opaque compromises, political gridlocks, unstable governments and reduced accountability to voters. Therefore, we have to move cautiously to maintain the spirit of electoral reforms for the benefit and prosperity of all stakeholders.
The writer is an associate professor of management sciences and heads the Centre of Islamic Finance at COMSATS University (CUI) Lahore Campus.He can be reached at drabdussattar @cuilahore.edu.pk