February issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 12 years ago

A big question mark hangs over the future of error-free computerised electoral rolls in Pakistan. Following the announcement of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold by-polls to seats vacated by federal and provincial legislators who resigned to join Imran Khan’s PTI, the Supreme Court stepped in. It stayed the by-polls, citing discrepancies in the existing electoral rolls prepared in 2007. Additionally, it ordered the ECP to complete the task of preparing error-free computerised rolls by February 2012. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has given the deadline of February 23, 2012 to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to complete the task. However, the ECP and its partner in the endeavour, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), have expressed their inability to meet the deadline.

While the court proceedings on Imran Khan’s petition pertaining to the electoral rolls continue, the apex court and the ECP have started communicating with each other through press releases to the media. The situation, in particular, offers juicy stuff to 24 x 7 channels that are harping on the mantra of ‘bogus votes,’ without dissecting the actual situation and ascertaining the truth.

The ECP saw the Supreme Court order as interference in its domain; it stated that constitutional provisions demanded that by-polls must be held within 60 days of a seat falling vacant.

In order to protect its ‘autonomous constitutional’ turf, the ECP subsequently hosted a multi-party consultation to rope the political heavyweights into the controversy. However, opinion was divided. Proponents of early elections in the folds of the opposition subscribed to the Supreme Court’s observations, while the ruling coalition partners were sympathetic to the ECP’s point of view and asserted that due processes, like the mandatory 21-day public display of the draft lists, should not end up being the casualty.

Incidentally, this is not the first, but the third attempt to obtain error-free computerised rolls. In 2000, for the first time, a nascent NADRA tried to computerise the electoral rolls. They picked up the forms of the 1998 population census and computerised them, ignoring the fact that the census blocks are slightly different from the electoral areas defined in the Electoral Rolls Act of 1974. However, what the nation got instead of computerised electoral rolls, was a scam worth Rs 444 million, well documented in the Auditor General’s Report (2003-4). The ECP had a very minor role in that abortive attempt. Election 2002 was held on the basis of those lists.

In 2005, in the days of donor-driven democracy the USAID funded a project worth US$ 16 million for the purposes of electoral assistance and reforms. This time, the ECP excluded NADRA from the equation and hired a private company, KalSoft, which was paid Rs 560 million to complete the task. Lists were prepared after ‘Door to Door Enumeration’ in 2006. The draft lists had only 52.10 million voters, compared to 71.86 million in the 2002 Electoral Rolls. Logically, figures should have jumped upward in a country experiencing a 2.7% population growth rate per annum and a youth bulge.

A big hue and cry was raised about the missing voters but what people failed to take into account was the fact that initially the Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) was a pre-requisite to being a voter but that rule was later relaxed to allow the holders of the defunct manual National Identity Cards (NICs). On Benazir Bhutto’s petition (45 of 2007), the Supreme Court ordered that those missing from the 2002 voters lists be clubbed with the CNIC list. This decision brought about 27 million more voters to the list. These are precisely the ones who are today being dubbed as the so-called ‘bogus voters.’

In 2010-11, the NADRA (civil registry) and the ECP (electoral registry) finally joined hands. Interestingly, once again there are US $ 8.5 million from USAID, via the Kerry Lugar window, to acquire sophisticated information technology to revolutionise the country’s electoral management system with ‘Pakistan’s first error-free computerised electoral rolls-2011,’ says a press release of the ECP issued on March 4, 2011.

Just four days after this press release, the NADRA came up with the notion of 37.12 million ‘unverified’ voters. And then the term ‘unverified’ immediately became ‘bogus voters.’ Out of these unverified voters, 8.96 million are just ‘duplicate entries,’ according to NADRA’s findings. About 11.05 million had manual NICs but their record does not exist in NADRA’s database. Shockingly, 2.14 million had invalid CNICs which means that the NADRA code has also been cracked at some stage. A large number of people, around 15.02 million, were on the 2007-8 Electoral Rolls without any CNIC or NIC. Quite understandable in a society that began registering its citizens only in 1973 and has, since then, changed the design of the NIC at least three times. In 2008, the government decided to change the design of the NIC, and to ensure that poor citizens do not incur additional expense to make new cards, the NADRA started issuing new CNICs free of cost.

While the NADRA declared 37.18 million as being ‘unverified’ voters, it has enlisted 36.69 million, who have CNICs, as new voters on the rolls. The numbers have increased, especially of women, after the CNIC was made mandatory for all those who wanted to benefit from the Benazir Income Support Programme or acquire the Wattan Card to get rations in a situation of emergency or natural calamities.

In Pakistan, the electoral rolls are prepared under Article 219 (a) of the Constitution. This article has been operationalised through the Electoral Rolls Act of 1974. The law explicitly states that electoral lists cannot be challenged in any court. The Act was amended in 2000 to provide an option for Computerised Electoral Rolls. It was further amended in 2011 to make the CNIC a pre-condition to register as a voter.

There are some practical problems that rarely attract the imagination of decision-makers. In Pakistan, a voter can register legally only from one place. That is why nomads are not entitled to be voters. Similarly, the procedure to shift one’s vote from one area to another is quite cumbersome. The ECP and other relevant authorities never factor in the reality that a majority of Pakistanis live in rented houses and shifting is rather frequent. Today they might be living in one constituency and tomorrow they may acquire a house in another locality. This needs to be rationalised as it disenfranchises many voters.

Further, since 2000, in its quest for computerised electoral rolls, the ECP has ignored annual revision of the rolls which is constitutionally mandatory. The apex court should have reprimanded the ECP for this serious constitutional negligence. Unfortunately, political parties have also ignored this important aspect. Similarly, donor interference in the Electoral Rolls has reduced the entire exercise to a time-bound project.

While the apex court’s observations make some people uncomfortable, some of the court decisions are of significant importance. For instance, on the orders of the court, transvestites are being issued CNICs and included in the electoral rolls for the first time. On Imran Khan’s demand, extending the right of vote to eight million plus expat Pakistanis is also being explored.

Free and fair elections on the basis of accurate electoral rolls is a long-standing demand of all Pakistanis. Political parties and the electorates are the real stakeholders in the process and they must come up with practical solutions to ensure this. The 18th Constitutional Amendment has further empowered the ECP. A vibrant ECP must meet the challenge to sustain and support this democratic dream of all Pakistanis. Failure to ensure error-free computerised electoral rolls amidst the pressure to meet a hasty deadline will add another sordid chapter to this continuing saga of unfair elections.

This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “The Case of the ‘Bogus Voters.’”

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