Reconstitute the Election Commission of Pakistan. Part 1
“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it”. No one has worked harder to prove Mark Twain right than the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The ECP continues to operate like V.S.Naipaul’s four men washing down the steps of an unpalatable Bombay hotel. The first pours water from a bucket, the second scratches the tiles with a twig broom, the third uses a rag to slop the dirty water down the steps into another bucket, which is held by the fourth. After they have passed, the steps are as dirty as before.
The 2008 elections were fraudulent – conducted with 37.2 million fake votes. No one was held accountable. No one went to jail. The 2013 elections were massively rigged and porous. The ECP failed to disqualify candidates who made false asset declarations, exceeded the election expenditure limits, evaded taxes or had fake degrees, criminal records or dual nationalities. Of the 319 MNAs, 108 paid no tax at all. Three others paid less than Rs.100. The elections returned not just the same set of ‘pirs’, ‘makhdooms’, landlords and decadent dynasties but also allowed members of the banned militant outfits to sneak in.
An electoral process that consistently recycles the same undesirable raw material cannot be expected to create a democratic order even after a thousand years. The ECP, much like the police and the bureaucracy of Pakistan has become completely dysfunctional and incapable of self-reform. Our best option may be to dissolve the present structure and constitute a fresh ECP.
The ECP should consist of seven members, all below 70 years of age, selected from different segments of society – plain citizens, judges, retired civil or military officials and professionals. At least 2 of them must be females and one from a minority community. They should be selected by a committee consisting of the Chief Justice and at least six other judges of the Supreme Court. Once selected the ECP members must themselves elect one out of the seven as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC).
As suggested by the Supreme Court, Pakistan should immediately adopt the ‘proportionate representation’ voting system in which the seats are allocated according to the total number of votes obtained by a party. The overseas Pakistanis ought to be given their right to vote. Every citizen should be free to vote from any location in Pakistan regardless of his/her permanent address.
Largely because of its incompetence and bureaucratic outlook, the ECP has so far failed to use the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). There ought to be no more elections without the EVMs, which can be developed, procured and tested in a few months. Smart national identity cards and bio metric identification must be made a compulsory requirement, eliminating the need for wooden boxes, ballot papers and the infamous magnetic ink.
Effective scrutiny of candidates is the weakest link in the ECP’s chain. It simply cannot conceive and implement the processes necessary to undertake these tasks. Candidates must fill and make direct on-line submissions of nomination forms 90 days before the election. The entire information ought to be available on the ECP website – allowing 90 days to ECP, public, HEC, NADRA, FBR, utility companies, banks and other organizations to scrutinize the credentials of each candidate.
The seven members of ECP must be directly responsible for the scrutiny of candidates while the role of the Returning Officers should be limited to supervising the actual conduct of elections. To give clarity to voters and to eliminate the need for subsequent by-elections, candidates must be limited to contest from one constituency only. Any participant contesting election ought to surrender all licensed and unlicensed weapons as an evidence of his belief in conflict resolution through peaceful methods.
Pakistan ought to adopt the ‘negative voting’ system. The EVMs must include the option to choose “none of the above”. Where the negative votes in a constituency are more than the highest votes received by a candidate, all candidates step down and there is re-election in that constituency.
Voting should be spread over 10 to 15 days. 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. ECP should appoint professional teams to monitor and disqualify candidates for violation of expenditure limits. The system of ‘separate electorate’ should be done away with and people of all faiths should vote as equal members of a common electorate.
It is unfair to expect illiterate representatives to solve the complex problems of a modern state. Pakistan ought to re-introduce the minimum educational requirement of at least a Bachelor’s degree. Finally the term of the parliament should be reduced from 5 to 4 years.
A parliament solely committed to its own preservation will not voluntarily adopt any of these suggestions. The only option for the people is to raise their voice and to reject those who refuse to change.
Reconstitute the Election Commission of Pakistan – Part 2
Partly by design and largely by choice, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) wears a cloak of helplessness. Much like the rest of the bureaucracy it prefers to function like a glorified post office rather than an autonomous and empowered body that it ought to be. The ECP must have the authority to call upon any institution of the state for support, personnel, technical inputs, scrutiny, administrative duties or any other function that may be needed for efficient conduct of elections. Once assigned these personnel must be under the complete jurisdiction of the ECP. This is necessary to curb the illegal ‘demands’ of local officials and politicians and to make it easier for the deputized election workers to report infringements of the election rules.
The ECP must come out of its lethargic mode of acting only when a violation is reported. It must create its own pro-active processes for conducting scrutiny of candidates and monitoring of the election practices. Professional firms could be hired to help develop these procedures. Systems should be devised as to how different departments responsible for verification of assets, tax payments, degrees, criminal records, payment of bills etc could come together to perform this crucial task. A simple process flow chart must be developed, rehearsed and advertised for the sequence and steps involved in the verification cycle – something that our ECP is so vehemently unenthusiastic about.
Public awareness programs must be developed and massively advertised on issues like the rights and duties of voters, false declarations by contestants and infringement of the election rules. Videos be made on these topics and repeatedly shown on all TV channels. The awareness programs should also include what the voters need to do (and not do) on the day of voting along with the details of each step of the voting process.
Ostentatious election displays, graffiti, noisy campaign convoys, blaring loudspeakers, display of weapons, wall-writings and posters on public and private property must be banned. A system of free short code SMS (such as 8400) be introduced to enable citizens to report violations. All such reports must be logged on a central computer, investigated immediately and the contestant disqualified if found guilty. All this is now easily possible by using basic communication and computer technology – something that our ECP ought to adopt immediately.
Needless to repeat that there should be no elections without the use of smart ID cards, bio metric verification and Electronic Voting machines (EVMs). There is no dishonor in buying, borrowing or renting 50,000 or so tried and tested EVMs from the next door neighbor. While following the ‘Proportionate Representation’ system, the focus of debate should be shifted from individuals to the party manifestos. There should be a minimum membership requirement for a party (say 100,000 or any other reasonable figure) below which it should not be eligible for elections.
Many political parties in Pakistan have evolved into dynastic, dictatorial or cult-like organizations. The electoral system must enforce that only those parties are eligible for elections, who hold their own regular internal elections to elect their office bearers. The maximum term of the office bearers must not exceed two successive terms of three years, after which they must retire for at least one term before being eligible to contest another party election. In order to eliminate dynasties and fiefdoms, no political party must be allowed to bestow designations such as life president or life chairman on anyone in the party.
Each party should have a prescribed annual membership fee, which should be as low as possible to sustain its organisational expenses and be within the means of an average Pakistani. The annual accounts of every party must be audited by a firm of reputed chartered accountants to qualify a party to be “in good standing” and be eligible to contest elections. Such firms of chartered accounts should be appointed by the ECP, paid out of the national exchequer and be rotated each year to avoid any personal bondage between a party and the professionals. The auditors must ensure that the income of the party is only from the membership fees and not from donations by any hidden internal or external hands.
Conducting elections is essentially an executive exercise and must not be delegated entirely to serving or retired judges. The ECP needs to create its own internal audit and accountability processes, and not wait for external complaints to review its performance. It is surprising that not a single ECP official has been held responsible for the long list of blunders that it has accumulated over past several elections. It may be best for the ECP members as well as the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms to study the functioning and performance of the Indian Chief Election Commissioner, T.N.Seshan (1990-1996). Revered for his honesty, integrity and extraordinary work as the Chief Election Commissioner of India, Seshan could be someone we can all learn from.