Electoral reform and the crisis of trust

Today the collective narrative of all the opposition parties is that 2018 elections were rigged in favour of the PTI


Durdana Najam May 13, 2021
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore and be reached at [email protected]

Since the 1970 elections, it has almost become a tradition for the losing parties to reject the electoral results of every election. Even by-elections and Senate elections are not spared of this ritual of mistrust in the system. Though every opposition party has shown resentment towards the practice of stealing votes from the ballots, it was the PTI that took the frenzy to the next level.

After the 2013 elections in which PML-N made a stunning return to Islamabad after a hiatus of almost 10 years, the PTI government went to the election tribunal for the reassessment of the results of most of the constituencies. The PML-N government, for some reason, refused to comply with the persistent demand of the PTI to recount the votes of four constituencies. Frustrated by the PML-N foot-dragging, the PTI decided to protest against electoral rigging in a dharna (sit-in) that lasted for 126 days in Islamabad. Though the PTI could not dislodge the PML-N government, it did weaken it considerably. In 2017, Nawaz Sharif had to relinquish the prime minister’s seat on the frivolous charges of holding a residence permit of the UAE. Fast forward to 2018, and comes the PTI government in power. This time, the PML-N had its ante up against the PTI for stealing the former’s votes.

Today the collective narrative of all the opposition parties is that the 2018 elections were rigged in favour of the PTI.

The recent two by-elections of Daska and Karachi have further exposed the fault lines of the electoral system. From violence and abduction of the Election Commission staff to the missing of the nefarious Form 45, both the elections witnessed traditional rigging practices.

The institutional history of electoral rigging in Pakistan has the footprints of the establishment’s interference. It began during Ayub Khan’s martial law regime when all the institutions — bureaucracy, judiciary, and parliament — were subordinated to the security apparatus. A semblance of civilian supremacy over the establishment was restored briefly in 1971-77 during the PPP regime, but it was quickly eclipsed by Ziaul Haq’s martial law. Later, the dismal removal of four prime ministers by their presidents on the guideline of the establishment under Article 58-2(b) in 1988, 1990, 1993, and 1996 completely eroded the legitimacy of mandate of the political parties.

Comes the lawyer’s movement in 2007. It did not only end General Musharraf’s eight-year rule, but also ended the possibility of a military takeover in the future. Democracy in other South Asian countries pressurised Pakistan to also build a culture of tolerance to accept dissent, encourage freedom of speech, develop an independent judiciary, and pave the way for a sustainable parliamentary system of governance. Unfortunately, this subordination to democratic values turned out to be a charade. Instead of direct intervention, the political parties in the 2008 general elections were allocated seats in a pre-determined space.

Though the PTI government has been both the victim and beneficiary of this electoral deception, it nevertheless wants to see the system revamped and has been inviting PML-N and other opposition parties to transform the electoral system.

The electoral reforms suggested by the PTI government encompass 49 amendments and deletions from the Elections Act 2017. Some significant amendments/deletions are: introduction of the Electronic Voting Machine; extending the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis; political parties with a minimum of 10,000 members would be eligible to get registered; political parties would be liable to hold annual conventions where people would be free to remark on the performance of the party; the right to challenge the appointment of the polling agent; electoral roll would be prepared based on NADRA data; elimination of the provision to delimit constituencies based on population and conducting Senate election through the open ballot.

The opposition, mainly the PML-N, has refused to accept these changes. They argue that Pakistan does not need any new electoral reforms. According to former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, “We need to act on two fronts which would automatically reform the electoral process. One, we would have to stop manipulating and pre-engineering election results. Two, [we would have] to obey in letter and spirit the Constitution of Pakistan.” There is merit in this argument but the problem is that when the PML-N was in power it did not adhere to this principle.

Notwithstanding the importance of electoral reforms, the question is: will it be enough to restore the institution of elections? The underlying cause behind suspecting the veracity of every election result was described by Babar Awan, the Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs, as a crisis of trust in the constitutional institution. There is merit in his argument but it is not the whole truth. The devil is in the detail.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has laid the blame for irregularities and mismanagement in the Daska and Senate elections on the door of the Election Commission of Pakistan. The PTI narrative has since been that because of the affiliation between Chief Election Commissioner Muhammad Sikandar Sultan Raja and PML-N, the results were manipulated to favour the party. This is a problematic argument and smacks vindictiveness. Raja’s appointment was made after a consensus between all major political parties in January 2020. The PTI government accepted him as the best choice among the others. Moreover, it took both the government and the opposition one year to decide who should lead the ECP.

Therefore, it is not only a crisis of trust in constitutional institutions, as indicated by Awan; instead, it is also an issue of political crisis. The PML-N may have looted the exchequer during its rule; then, it is not the only party to screw the country’s resources. The PPP and other parties have an equal share in turning Pakistan into a house of cards. If we care to look, we may also find looters beyond political parties in other constitutional bodies. If the PTI government wants PML-N’s cooperation in reforming the electoral system, then the first step would be to stop calling them, or any other opposition party, goons. Unless the PTI is using the PML-N hatred card for political expediency, there is no reason not to back off from its blanket opposition to strengthen the process of lawmaking. Ordinances are tools of a dictator not of a democratic leadership.

A Missouri Senator, John Danforth, who founded a centre for religion and politics at Washington University, once said: “If legislators want to legislate — and not just appeal to a rabid group of supporters come hell or high water — that is going to be in a system that involves compromise.” In such a system, “It is very helpful to believe that your programme in not immutable. And that other people you are dealing with have something to add.”

Polls after polls say that people want politicians to “make consensus” rather than “stick to principles”.

A point to ponder for the PTI cadre: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2021.

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