With a ‘million march’ looming on the horizon to protest alleged election rigging, the push for electoral reforms has gained renewed urgency. The government, through a timely move, has requested the speaker of the National Assembly to constitute a committee to mull over the whole spectrum. The present controversy about the fairness of the last general elections started with a debate on the decision to involve judicial officers in the electoral process. I have previously expressed strong reservations about the said decision when a vast majority of opinion-makers were hailing it as the correct move. In my column of November 21, 2012 in The Express Tribune, I made the following observations: “This move is a departure from the judicial policy of 2009, which had rightly drawn a line for judicial officers when it came to their involvement in election duties. It was hoped that the step would keep the judiciary away from political controversies and charges of rigging that adversaries level against each other.”
Subsequent events proved that this decision became highly controversial, starting with the scrutiny of nomination papers by returning officers. In Pakistan, members of the election commission, including its chairman, are drawn mainly from the judicator branch. There is no harm in this if this provision is revisited and membership of the commission is opened to other key branches of government, including the civil service, whose members could draw on their valuable field experience. In India, for instance, the chief election commissioner is generally a member of the civil service and is responsible for manning a huge and most complex exercise. The success of the Indian electoral process, to a great extent, owes itself to the hard work of two of its former chief election commissioners, TN Seshan and MS Gill.
The present system practiced in Pakistan of selection of names for the post of the chief election commissioner by the leader of the house and leader of the opposition points towards a culture of ‘politics of compromise' rather than a laid down, objective criterion to assess the credentials of persons considered suitable for this position. The reforms committee should look into this present practice.
The role of political parties is of key significance in electoral politics. The prevalent laws fall short in configuring a direct nexus of political parties with the electoral processes. As a result, we find a huge mushrooming of political parties. There are about 200 political parties registered with the election commission while just a dozen of them have a presence in parliament. Parties with no history of presence in parliament should be deregistered by the commission. They can, at best, form advocacy groups. Also, a threshold of minimum percentage of votes received out of the total votes cast in a particular province should be established as the benchmark for a party to exist. This will provide some space to regional parties. In all other cases, the parties should be given the option to merge with a larger political party in parliament or their elected members should be declared independents.
Political parties control the selection of candidates for elections. But who controls political parties? There is a need to bring under scrutiny the practice of officeholders within parties being elected unopposed. Also, the practice of giving ‘lifetime achievement awards' should be replaced with transparent, well-contested intraparty elections. In addition, the practice of a candidate contesting on more than one seat should be restricted as this is just a waste of resources.
The crunch lies on election day. We need to move swiftly towards introducing electronic voting machines to ensure transparency, fairness and efficiency while ruling out chances of bogus voting and ballot stuffing. This will also help in overcoming identification and transactional issues associated with a time consuming manual system. There could be security issues in the system, which could be backed up by a paper audit trail system, enabling simultaneous crosschecking of data.
The voting system also requires a thorough critique. Under the prevalent system, a candidate with just 35 per cent of votes may well make it to parliament. In two general elections held in the 1990s, parties securing less percentage of aggregate votes secured a larger share of seats and formed the government. In developed political systems, proportional representation has been the answer to this conundrum. Are we ready to consider such a system here? The proposed committee should be looking into the pros and cons of such a proposal.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2014.
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