Why reject the electoral reforms?

Published: January 13, 2017
The writer is a social activist and the National Coordinator for Pattan Development Organisation. 
The views expressed are his own. He tweets @BariSarwra

The writer is a social activist and the National Coordinator for Pattan Development Organisation. The views expressed are his own. He tweets @BariSarwra

After 30 long months finally our parliamentary parties completed a draft bill for electoral reforms. For 30 days, ending on January 19 it has been made available to the stakeholders for input. Reportedly, the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform (PCER) received 1283 proposals spread on 4000 pages from various institutions. In order to review these proposals and the existing election laws the PCER held 70 meetings. It might have burnt lots of energy. But reading of the 241 clauses of the draft bill that are spread on 149 pages reveal how skillful is our political elite to strengthen the status quo and their stranglehold in the name of reforms.

The stated scope of the PCER was not just limited to making elections free, fair and transparent but also to make the system more democratic. Making ECP more powerful and independent is indeed very much required and the draft bill has moved forward, but only a little, as its members would still be appointed by incumbent Prime Minister and leader of opposition. Moreover, the two would also constitute the caretaker setup. Therefore, it is highly likely that both institutions would fulfill wishes of their selectors. And this clearly undermines article 218 of our constitution that ensures free and fair elections.

The architects of the draft bill attempted to hide the retrogressive nature of some major clauses by propagating minimum mandatory turnout of women, enhanced empowerment of the ECP and unification of nine electoral laws. But most election experts are likely to expose the true nature of the draft bill. For instance, the clause 239 of the draft bill proposes transfers of ECP power to government to make rules of the act. If passed this would be an extremely retrogressive measure.

Sadly the draft bill also does not address any major issues of electoral system and our polity including the following:
1) politically partisan ECP as its members are appointed by leaders of only two parties; 2) it’s partially undemocratic because reserved and the senate seats are filled through undemocratic way; 3) it encourages dynastic polity as many family members could become MPs simultaneously. Hence causing severe and widespread alienation; 4) lacks equality of vote/representation; 5) ECP lacks professionalism. This has also been stated in the Commission of Inquiry report and in the infamous ECP evaluation report.

Moreover, the Judicial Commission of Inquiry on General Elections 2013 found three major shortcomings of the ECP.
1) Lack of planning; 2) lack of training, overload of RO’s and PO’s and failure to comply with the electoral laws; and, 3) lack of co-ordination between ECP and its lower tiers on the ground. These flaws occurred due to serious negligence, observed the judicial commission. Interestingly, no substantive and prompt measure is proposed in the draft election reform bill to check on non-compliance and partisan behavior of an election official. Therefore, it may not be unfair to conclude that the PCER failed to learn any lessons from the judicial commission inquiry report and from the verdict of the Supreme Court under the Workers’ Party case. The ECP too failed to harvest any lessons from these developments, as it could not improve conduct of subsequent bye-elections and local elections.

Will the draft bill in its current form help improve the conduct of 2018 elections? I doubt it because it has not eliminated partisan influence. Our former Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali very rightly remarked during a hearing of a case, “Pakistan is being run as a monarchy in the guise of democracy”. His words spread like a wildfire in the country. The CJ said what every Pakistani whispers ten times a day. That evening, many labour activists with whom I work phoned me with a great joy. Many thanked the media too for highlighting his remarks.

We don’t need utopian law. We need an electoral system that doesn’t allow elected representatives to behave like kings. It must allow complete confidence to electorates to make MPs accountable without any fear and greed. It must be transparent, democratic and practical and based on our ethos and provide proportionate representation to all segments of our society.

Consider these. First, in order to end monopoly of dynasties, put ban on close blood relations to be members of elected bodies simultaneously and also bar candidates from contesting elections from multiple constituencies. For instance, due to contesting on multiple constituencies in 2013 general elections, 41 bye-elections were held. This dreadful practice must be abolished, as it is wasteful and unethical.

Second, make sure equal representation is provided to all regions and sub regions. For instance, in the 2013 general elections 3.336 million Balochistan voters on average have one seat per 238,286 voters, while Fata’s 1.738 million voters have 12 seats or one-seat per 144,833 voters. According to the FATA ratio, Balochistan should have 23 NA seats. FATA has the best seat-voters ratio and this must be adopted across all provinces and districts in the reformed law.

Third, replace the current undemocratic method of filling quota seats with direct mode of election. Under the reformed law political parties must be made responsible to implement the quota by issuing tickets to women and non-Muslims for the designated constituencies. Also, increase women quota from 17 per cent to 33 per cent and non-Muslims quota from 10 seats to 20 seats. General Musharraf increased NA seats from 207 to 272 in 2002 but not of non-Muslims. As their share in assemblies declined and their population has increased, their seats should also be increased. A non-Muslim MP directly elected both by Muslims and non-Muslims will definitely help improve religious harmony, lower prejudices and hate against minorities — a major objective of the National Action Plan too.

Fourth, abolish indirect method of elections from the Senate to local government as it promotes corruption, nepotism and cronyism. Fifth, incorporate a clause in the electoral reform bill to make elected members accountable to their respective electorates. A most popular method is to empower constituents to recall their members. For instance, if an MP fails to achieve 70% attendance time of all sitting of a year, s/he may be deseated as s/he violates reasons of being a member. In some countries If 20 per cent of the constituents sign a petition to recall their member, s/he is deseated and by-election is held and the deseated member is not allowed to contest again. Sixth, many countries have introduced a threshold of 51 per cent of the polled votes for returned candidates. This step will likely to enhance legitimacy of returned candidates. Finally, in order to prevent corrupt persons from entering the parliament, increase the scrutiny period and introduce stringent conditions.

One positive clause that deserves appreciation is about holding of local elections within 120 days of the expiry of the term of the local government. But since the draft bill largely fails to address major evils of our polity and electoral system, it must be rejected. In short it’s the same old stinking water that is being sold in a new bottle. Why shouldn’t we buy this?

Published in The Express Tribune, January 13th, 2017.

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