January Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

For the first time, electoral reforms have become a popular, albeit contentious, political demand in the public sphere with unprecedented pressure being exerted on the federal government by political opponents, specifically Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), to investigate what actually happened in the May 2013 elections. The PTI has campaigned for months to hold to account those who allegedly stole the people’s mandate. This could be described as one of the strongest movements in the country to establish the sanctity of the vote. The movement has been put on hold for a while in the wake of the terror attack in Peshawar, but its impact is bound to have long-term repercussions.

Pakistan has always struggled to design a viable electoral system. In its initial years, it toyed with disenfranchising formulas like parity and an Electoral College comprised of basic democrats. When the country opted for ‘one-person, one vote’ in 1970, it could not digest the outcome. Later, covert and overt manipulations continued to define the country’s political landscape and evade the core question of legitimacy.

In April 2010, the 18th Constitutional Amendment attempted to reform the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) by institutionalising its powers with permanent provincial members. A bridge of neutral caretakers was also built into the Constitution to facilitate a smooth transfer of power. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a series of verdicts on the quality of electoral rolls and the use and abuse of money, tried to fix the fractured system. But the end result is the prevailing chaos that continues to eclipse the short-lived euphoria of the first-ever “civilian to civilian transition of power.”

A 33-member Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms, (PCER) headed by Senator Ishaq Dar, has been in function since June 2014. The Committee does not include any voice from the religious minorities that have their own set of concerns regarding representation in democratic institutions. The PTI has not attended PCER’s meetings since August, when it opted for sit-ins and rallies instead. The PCER was constituted with a pledge on the floor of the Parliament that it would complete its task within three months, but its outcome is still awaited, five months later. The work of the PCER’s sub-committee reviewing electoral laws, headed by Zahid Hamid, has also slowed down after his name figured in General Musharraf’s treason case.

As of today, the ostensible thrust of electoral reforms is more on procedural matters, whereas the much bigger challenge is to design an inclusive electoral system for the country, especially in the interest of aspirants with limited resources. Insiders confide that the PCER has suggested increasing the expenditure ceiling for candidates of national and provincial constituencies. The proposed Rs 8 million ceiling for a national constituency and  Rs 5 million for a provincial one appear quite meagre when compared with actual electoral expenses that are at least five to six times higher than the permissible limit. Similarly, while reviewing the Political Parties Order-2002, the sub-committee of the PCER hasn’t fixed any limit on electoral expenses for the political parties. In the age of tele-democracy and helicopter campaigns, the parties end up spending enormous amounts. Another limitation of the party law is that it does not cover political alliances. In 2014, the leader of a banned outfit was about to enter the National Assembly under the umbrella of a political alliance.

The PCER has proposed to cut down the existing 282 political parties enlisted with the ECP by making registration and audit systems mandatory and more stringent. The majority of these political parties have never contested an election and one fails to understand the rationale behind their existence. Delisting of those political parties that don’t contest two consecutive elections will work better than any restrictive registration clauses and conditionalities. It is pertinent to recall that in 1988, the late Benazir Bhutto won a case in the Supreme Court against the notion of registration of political parties, as it violated the right to association. The current law asks the parties to submit certain documents periodically to qualify for an election symbol.

The main concern before the PCER is to reform the ECP. The notion of institutionalised powers made the all-powerful Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of yesteryears only one among the equals. In the absence of the culture of exercising institutionalised powers, an honest and upright person like Justice (retd.) Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim could not do much. Now the Committee can suggest either reverting to the old tradition by making the CEC the first among equals or entrust him/her with certain additional powers.

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The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the opposition, Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), have made public their desire to expand the catchment area for appointment of the CEC and four provincial members of the ECP beyond retired judges. The assumption was that the work of the ECP is primarily of an administrative nature and a retired civil servant or anyone else with effective administrative skills and expertise could do a better job. Interestingly, soon after the suggestion was floated, the Apex court came up with a deadline to appoint the permanent CEC in accordance with the existing mechanism, failing which the court would recall its judge who was serving as an acting CEC. The Constitution provides for an acting CEC without specifying the period for such an arrangement. However, the political cum parliamentary lethargy in the appointment of the CEC should slow down the process. The newly appointed CEC, Justice (retd.) Sardar Raza Khan now has to cobble together a team with the four sitting members, whose terms will conclude in 2016 and whose conduct has already drawn much flak.

A similar political lethargy exists regarding the designing of an effective local government system in the light of benchmarks of political, fiscal and administrative devolution provided in Article 140-A of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has given numerous deadlines to hold local elections in the four provinces, the federal capital and 53 cantonments. Only Balochistan held its local elections in December 2013, but the other provinces have yet to hold them. The PCER must consider inserting a sub-article to making the holding of local elections time-bound.

Technological solutions that are often marketed as a panacea for many problems are also being discussed, along with all their pros and cons in the PCER. The ECP appears to be sceptical about the complete efficacy of Electronic Voting Machines. The fears of data-hacking and electronic-manipulations lie in the ambit of high risk. The biometric system has also been billed as an expensive proposition, because the civil registry, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) does not have fingerprints of each and every CNIC holder. However, that will be doable in the coming years. The collaboration between the ECP and NADRA helped in preparing error-free electoral rolls. The NADRA system of “thumbprint verification” could also be optimised. Digitisation of election-related forms and relevant records are equally important as it can hasten the disposal of election-related disputes and petitions. The current system has only multiplied doubts.

One hopes that our politicians will introduce the long-awaited comprehensive electoral reforms as a New Year gift to the nation, whose democratic
aspirations are drawing new supporters.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.

Zafarullah Khan is an Islamabad-based researcher and civic educator, and currently executive director of the Centre for Civic Education Pakistan.