Pakistan is due to hold its next general election in 2013. Those who indulged in plunder, default or forgery will once again be the key contestants. The Election Commission will once again fail to verify the credentials of the candidates. The core committees will once again nominate the Gilanis. The Gilanis will once again promote the Dastis. The Dastis will once again get elected. Democracy will once again take its revenge from the people of Pakistan.
The electoral process often determines the quality of democracy and governance in a country. An electoral process that consistently recycles corrupt, incompetent and crooked cannot be expected to create a democratic order even after a thousand years. The only method to break this unfortunate pattern is to reform the very process that generates this vicious cycle. Thus, while there will be resistance offered by its current beneficiaries, Pakistan must nevertheless embark upon massive electoral reforms.
The existing ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP -also called Winner-takes-all) voting system suffers from serious shortcomings. A candidate can win an election with as little as 30% votes, if the other 70% get divided into smaller portions amongst other parties. One can thus have a party with majority of seats in the parliament even when 70% voters did not vote in its favour. More than 80 countries of the world, including most western democracies now follow the Proportional Representation (PR) voting system. In a PR system parties are assigned parliamentary seats proportionate to the total number of votes they obtain. This also increases voter turn out, as every voter knows that his vote will impact the number of seats won by a party and that each individual ‘can make a difference’.
Pakistan should replace its existing FPTP system by the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system. In a PR system every party presents a list of its proposed candidates and people vote for the party as a whole. PR provides a better representation of all regions, minorities and smaller parties in the parliament. Take for example a small party that received only 5% of the popular vote. This party would be entitled to 5% of the total seats. In a 340 seat legislature that would mean 17 seats. These seats would go to the top 17 names on the already declared list of the party. The election temperature and conflicts are greatly reduced as the local powerful and influential groups are not in direct clash with each other. Small parties and independent candidates have a much better chance as they can receive a nation wide vote instead of just the local constituency vote. Thus the PR system can cause major shifts in the profile of people who get elected to the parliament.
The Election Commission (EC) of Pakistan, the institution responsible to conduct elections, itself needs radical reforms and reconstruction. Unwittingly it has played the role of abetment in the crime of repeated re-election of criminals. The Election Commission must be taken out of its ‘post office mode’ in which it blindly receives and notifies whatever information is provided to it by the candidates. The EC seemed completely helpless to stop a publicly recognized swindler in Muzaffargarh to stand for elections twice in two years. The Election Commission has also consistently failed to disqualify candidates when they made false asset declarations or grossly exceeded the election expenditure limits.
Complex modern states can no longer be run by half literate feudals. High standards must be defined for qualification and competence of candidates to enable the most competent people to enter the law making process. Anyone convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, giving false evidence or fraudulent documents should be permanently ineligible to contest elections. The criminal-friendly amendment that enables a rapist or murderer to contest elections if 5 years have passed from the date of his release from jail needs to be nullified. Those possessing nationality, passport or permanent residence of a foreign country should also not be eligible to contest elections. Complete information of each participant (nationality, assets, tax paid, crime record, educational qualifications etc) must be placed on a website and printed in newspapers at least 2 months before the elections and made open to public scrutiny.
Every voter should have the option of negative voting. The negative votes send out a stark message of the number of voters who did not trust any of the candidates. Where the negative votes in a constituency are more than the highest votes received by a candidate, all candidates are made to step down and there is re-election in that constituency.
Massive voter awareness and education programs (on print and electronic media) should begin at least 2 years prior to elections. Besides explaining the voting procedure, these programs should create awareness on parameters for evaluating the suitability of a candidate. The existing voter lists need purification. Specific details of constituency, voter name, NIC number, address and polling stations should be computerised, linked with NADRA and displayed on websites and at all public places for people to check and point out any discrepancy.
On the day of voting, the government should provide free transportation to carry voters from various localities to the polling stations. Political parties and candidates should be barred from providing transports, making payments or arranging free meals to influence the voters.
The Indians have been using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) since 1999. Pakistan should decide to use the same for its 2013 elections. These are temper-proof portable machines that save on printing, securing, transporting, stuffing and miscounting the ballot papers. Army should be asked to supervise polling stations to prevent militancy, lawlessness, bogus voting and harassment, that so often discourages decent citizens to come out for voting. Cameras should be installed at all polling stations so that every person is photographed and double voting is made impossible. Intra-party elections must be made mandatory, if Pakistan is to get rid of dynastic and fascist political parties.
The system of ‘separate electorate’ should be done away with and people of all faiths should vote as equal members of a common electorate. Now is the time to initiate a serious debate on reforming our electoral process. Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. Must we prove the maxim right.