The elusive electoral reforms
Fast forward May 2018. Riots erupt in all major towns of Pakistan after the announcement of the election results. Political parties complain of massive rigging, bogus votes, missing forms, ballot paper stuffing, missing thumb prints, use of non-magnetic ink, printing of extra ballot papers, multiple voting and a host of other irregularities. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) denies all charges. The government appoints a Judicial Commission. A special parliamentary committee for electoral reforms is constituted. The shortcomings of 2018 are a déjà vu of those experienced in 2013 and many earlier elections.
Two key factors ensure that the ECP remains archaic and incurable. Firstly it is unnatural for the people who gain most out of the current chaos to make improvements that will destroy their own prospects for power and plunder. Secondly, the ECP being an extension of a dysfunctional colonial bureaucracy, does not have the will or the capacity to implement or improve the electoral process on its own. It is not willing to part with its wooden box, ink and thumb-print voting process. Thus, no recipe for reform is likely to be effective. The entire electoral process needs to be re-addressed and re-engineered.
The choice of Chief Election Commissioner and the four ECP members should not be exclusive to the judiciary but must be open to competent individuals with proven track from all other sectors of government, industry and civil society.
The era of wooden boxes, ballot papers and the infamous magnetic ink must finally come to an end. There ought to be no more elections without the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), which can be developed, procured and tested in a few months. Smart national identity cards, biometric identification and camera-monitored voting should eliminate all opportunities for fake voting or fake counting. The debate of permanent and temporary address must be totally eliminated and every citizen should be free to vote from any of the two addresses mentioned on the CNIC. The cost of re-useable EVMs would completely off-set the repeated cost of millions of ballot papers and wooden boxes.
Pakistan needs to replace the ‘first-past-the-post’ system by Proportional Representation to ensure that all political groups in society are represented in the legislature in proportion to their strength in the electorate. Likewise overseas Pakistanis who have so far been denied their right to vote ought to be included in the voting process.
The system of ‘separate electorate’ ought to be done away with and people of all faiths should vote as members of a common electorate, with no distinction between citizens on the basis of their belief or religion.
The voting process can be made much more controlled and accountable by spreading the elections over 15-20 days. This could mean that the same EVMs, cameras, communication equipment, staff, monitoring and security provisions could be relocated from one city to another. While the data is collected on-line by central computers, the interim results are not announced to avoid influencing the voters who are yet to vote.
The Parliament’s term should be reduced from 5 to 3 years. It would create greater accountability besides providing an early opportunity to change a low-performing government. Candidates must contest from one constituency only. Contestants must surrender all licensed and unlicensed weapons as an evidence of their belief in conflict resolution through peaceful means. A “none of the above” option should be provided to enable re-election in a constituency where the negative votes exceed the highest votes received by any contestant.
The ECP is guilty of allowing dynastic, cult-like and militant political parties to participate in elections. The ECP ought to ensure that only those parties are eligible to contest elections who meet the eligibility criteria stipulated in Pakistan Political Parties Order 2002. Parties not holding regular internal elections or those whose leaders enjoy such undemocratic designations as life-president or life-chairman should be disallowed to contest.
The weakest link in the ECP’s chain is its complete inability to scrutinize the eligibility criteria of the candidates. With no mechanism of its own, it remains dependent on complaints by the opposing candidates. It must be the direct responsibility of the ECP members to ensure that those who make false asset declarations, exceed election expenditures, have had their loans written off, were defaulters of utility services or have fake degrees, criminal records or dual nationalities are disqualified. This is possible if the candidates fill and make direct on-line submissions of nomination forms at least 120 days before the election. The entire information should be available at the ECP’s website – allowing enough time to ECP, public, HEC, NADRA, FBR, utility companies, banks and other organizations to scrutinize the credentials of each candidate. Not creating these processes will only keep the ECP functioning like a ‘perpetual commotion machine’ forever.