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Can we craft a new electoral system in Pakistan?

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A colleague of mine wrote this article which i thought was very timely. While a big uproar has engulfed the country on unfair elections of 2013 and the PTI supporters are gearing for a long March, some people are taking steps to come up with proposals or at least set up a process to review the election mechanism. The initiative of the Parliament to set up a committee to come up with recommendations of reforms is a step forward.

Can we craft a new electoral system   by Zafarullah Khan

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

With the formation of a 33-member Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PCER) the ball has finally arrived in the political-and-parliamentary court.

Electoral reforms primarily belongs to the political domain; in the past it tried to plug some holes via computerised electoral lists based on ‘one CNIC-one vote’, a full time Election Commission appointed through parliamentary scrutiny and insurance for continuity through a neutral caretaker setup. Judicial activism also tried to check the use and abuse of money, media and muscle.

These piecemeal transplants over an archaic electoral system based on outdated statutes didn’t yield enough dividends, yet the country witnessed its first ever civilian to civilian transition and transfer of power. The slightly improved system also demonstrated its capacity to expose ‘electoral thieves’ and subsequently generated demands for electoral reforms in public and political spheres.

Effective democratic architecture is founded on undisputed electoral legitimacy determined through clean votes, therefore responding to rising political temperatures and calls for audit of Election-2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wrote a letter to the speaker of the National Assembly on June 10, 2014 to constitute a parliamentary committee to address the issue.

According to the motion adopted on June 19, 2014 in the National Assembly the PCER is mandated to evaluate shortcomings of previous elections and make recommendations for electoral reforms for free, fair and transparent elections within three months from the date of its notification. Meaning thereby, the PCER has to work day and night for 92 days to complete its task of preparing comprehensive reforms package or suggestions to completely overhaul the system by October 25, 2014.

The odd thing is that mere constitution of the committee consumed 45 days. Similar lacklustre attitude will be fatal during the agreed short life of the PECR. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which emerged as the harbinger of electoral reforms, has already cautioned that the PCER shall not be used as a ‘delaying tactic’ to defuse their struggle – which otherwise is gaining momentum. To alleviate fears a parliamentary pledge has been made that the timeframe given to the committee will not be extended at any cost.

The scope of work of the PCER includes, but is not limited to, making recommendations to ensure free, fair and transparent elections, adoption of the latest technology, proposing necessary legislation or constitutional amendments, if required. One expects that with this explicit mandate the PCER will opt for out-of-the-box solutions and instead of relying on fixing the old system here and there, it will come up with a modern electoral system that will be compatible with the technological possibilities of electronic-voting.

Perhaps it is time to shift from manual to modern technological e-voting, e-voter registration plus verification, e-counting and swift electoral grievance redress mechanisms in Pakistan. In this way, with the change of electoral software, the hardware of country’s electoral machinery – more specifically the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) – would require a different kind of leadership and human resources to internalize reforms and vanguard nation’s political wealth. In the past despite efforts the ECP couldn’t reclaim its original soul and spirit because military regimes used it as an instrument to earn legitimacy for usurpers through fraudulent referendums in 1984 and 2002.

One expects that the committee will also dedicate its energies to democratise qualification and disqualification criteria enlisted in Article 62 and 63. The minimum will be to delete dictatorial clause inserted during General Zia’s regime as they have confused the political narrative in the country. The committee shall also revisit the Political Party Order-2002 as it was promulgated by yet another military regime and falls short on fixing any spending limit on parties and a proper audit of parties’ financial statements. The law is totally silent about the formation of election alliances and this lacuna has been exploited well by banned outfits that contested previous election.

This politics-led indigenous initiative for reforms must take into account the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and many other pledges that assert citizens’ right to be governed democratically and be able to participate and run for an elected office.

There is a significant body of knowledge on what ails Pakistan’s electoral system. The list of problems is long – ranging from ghost polling stations to troubles in trustworthy counting and record keeping. The Standing Committee of the National Assembly on Law has done lot of homework. The Special Committee on Election Issues in the Senate also held public hearing and series of consultative meetings. The PCER shall also hold public hearings or at least solicit citizen’s suggestions for electoral reforms. In this regard political parties are the main stakeholders and those who are currently out of parliament and continue to create chaos shall also be consulted to make this process more inclusive. Over the years international donors have also spent millions of dollars to fix the fractured electoral system.

Dissection of the composition of the PCER reveals that out of 18 political parties with representation in the National Assembly only three single legislator parties – the Balochistan National Party-Mengal, the National Party of Dr Malik Baloch and tthe All Pakistan Muslim League of General Musharraf – have been denied berth in the committee comprising 16 parties and independents from Fata.

The single-senator National Party has also been ignored by the Senate, which contributed 11 members to the PCER. The committee includes nine legislators who had been members of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms that cobbled the 18th Amendment. There are four women legislators from the lower house but there is no representation of religious minorities. The speaker is empowered to replace any member of the committee on the request of the parliamentary party leader concerned. The leading parties must consider inclusion of those who have been excluded in the first notification.

Nevertheless a window of opportunity has been created to reform the country’s electoral system to make it more inclusive and transparent. This moment must be seized because a trustworthy electoral system along with an independent judiciary and free media will be the key to a better democratic future. This will be happening amid a climate of political confusions and chaos characterised by calls for marches and so-called revolution. Only time will tell whether the political class will be able to ward off any future coup de grace against the fragile and transitory democracy or complicate the matter further.

The writer is an Islamabad-based civic educator/researcher with an interest in federalism and democratic development.

 

 

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