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The dividends and the limitations

The new election law is enacted 40 years after the earlier one. The improvement, however, is marginal, lacklustre and procedural in nature

The dividends and the limitations

The existing election laws were enacted by the first directly elected government of the country in the 1970s. The first elections themselves were held under almost the same set of laws enacted under the provisional constitution and they delivered the elections that are to date considered the most credible.

The election laws, thus, have always had the potential of meeting popular expectations. The devil, however, lies not in the details but in the implementation.

There is no doubt that the implementation of these laws is primarily the responsibility of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) but equally important is the fact that the Commission alone cannot fathom the distance between the law and the implementation of law.

Within this distance, there lie two other main players: the state machine and political parties.

The state machine is employed to deliver national-scale tasks, be it the response to natural disasters, holding of population census, or administering polio vaccine to our children. The Pakistan army is the premier delivery organisation with the requisite capacity and outreach. Then comes the legion of teachers of public schools and colleges. They probably form the other biggest group of government employees but they certainly are not the most efficient of them.

Does any party have a cadre of trained political agents to monitor polling at each of the roughly 80,000 stations that will be set for the next elections? If parties had the capacity to maintain a quality oversight, it could hugely improve election operations.

It is this group that forms the cogs and wheels of the electoral machine that the Commission runs to produce an election. The Commission takes charge of them for a few days and cannot possibly address all the problems inherent to the nature of their contract, and their resultant relationship, with the state. The laws have only attempted to instil fear in them to extract efficiency but we know it doesn’t work this way.

The fear of the state dissipates as the orders move down the implementing tiers or are offset by other fears that originate at the local level and may, in fact, be more real and compelling.

The point to bring home is that whatever the laws, without substantial improvements in the overall quality of delivery of the state machinery, there will be problems — possibly to the extent that they may make the legal reforms look futile.

Take for example the matter of adjudication on election disputes. Most of such cases take longer than the term of the elected persons accused of some violation or malpractice. The ‘justice delayed’ is, however, the hallmark of our system and the process of electoral justice cannot insulate itself from the parent justice system to produce an awe-inspiring performance on its own. There is no surprise then that legal reforms in the elections dispute resolution have failed to meet the expectations.

This is, however, not to state that reforms in election laws are needless. They are definitely needed but my worry is that we have invested too many expectations and pinned too many hopes to just one aspect — the enactment of laws — and are paying little attention to the other aspect that I find more important and crucial.

Read also: Neither candidates nor votes

The dividends of a law looking great on paper will always be limited. The election law passed recently by the National Assembly has a number of provisions intended to improve the participation of women in elections. It may, however, not greatly increase that in the upcoming general elections but it will certainly offer this matter a position on the centrestage.

Euphoria around the electoral reforms as a measure to make the general election 2018 more credible or less controversial may, thus, be misplaced. It is politics that will decide; and in politics, realities and facts serve just as meek reference points. The more important is the narrative woven around them or even in total disregard of them.

This brings in the second main player in the election processes — the political parties. Mirroring the state’s delivery apparatuses, they too lack the capacity to manage their own elections operation. Does any party have a cadre of trained political agents to monitor polling at each of the roughly 80,000 stations that will be set for the next elections? If parties had the capacity to maintain a quality oversight, it could hugely improve election operations.

But the parties don’t have a cadre training programme. Their internal structures are absent or weak and, as often discussed, they are least democratic in their internal operations. They definitely have a defence based on historic and political facts, but let’s be fair — the parties have resisted doing even what was achievable. Instead, they have found it more opportune to convert the electoral deficiencies into a quick buck that could be encashed in the political market.

The just-passed law is the work of the Parliamentary Committee that was set up three years ago to counter Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) allegations of rigging in 2013 elections. The party had scant parliamentary strength of 35 seats in the house of 342 but its street politics kicked up a storm and enabled it to project itself to the national stage. The allegations of rigging in elections paid huge political dividends to the PTI, far more than the elections did themselves. The governing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, obviously, wanted to rob the opposition of this gain.

The electoral reform process, thus, was a result of the politics for which creating the perceptions of who is the real champion of high values was more important than the substance of reforms. The new election law is enacted 40 years after the earlier one, the improvement, however, is marginal, lacklustre and procedural in nature.

More importantly, the new law remains the subject of the same politics. The PTI has refused to endorse it. The party’s main objections relate to giving voting rights to overseas Pakistanis and introducing electronic voting machines and biometric verification of voters at the polling station. These additions have the potential of bringing in new challenges that the state machinery cannot meet within the span of two elections. They will also pose their own unique sets of problems that can make elections as controversial as the ones held under existing system, if not more. The electronic voting machines leave behind no paper trail, making the settlement of counting disputes almost impossible.

But facts and realities now play an increasingly shrinking role in politics. The more important thing for the opposition parties is that they don’t want to be seen endorsing a step forward, howsoever small it may be, taken by the sitting government and they definitely don’t want to lose the ground for launching another campaign to protest rigging in general elections 2018.

Tahir Mehdi

Tahir Mehdi
The author works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

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