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The choice is yours

In search of an electoral system that suits Pakistan

The choice is yours

The present electoral system has been so perverted over the years that it now serves the interests of the elite only. With each election, the hold of the elite over the country’s political landscape has strengthened, paving the way for dynastic rule and adding to common man’s mistrust in the system.

Given the situation, if a major segment of the society has been vociferously demanding electoral reforms, one should not be surprised. Addressing a press conference in Lahore on December 11, 2014, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal conceded: “There are no disagreements (between the PML-N and the PTI) over electoral reforms.”

However, from the stance of major political parties, it remains unclear what kind of reforms they are seeking. Meanwhile, Jamaat-e-Islami has called for the adoption of proportional representation system and completing the electoral reforms before the next parliamentary elections.

Till recently, elections in Pakistan were held under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, which is a legacy of the British colonial regime. Experience tells that FPTP is highly ill-suited for a diverse multi-ethnic federal state like Pakistan. Amongst major flaws of this system, the most glaring is election of a candidate who bags even a few votes more than his nearest rival while the losing candidates’ political parties do not necessarily get seats proportionate to the total votes bagged by them. FPTP thus gives a bigger share of seats to the larger parties than their share of the total votes and a smaller share of seats to the smaller parties than their share of the overall seats.

In view of FPTP’s flaws, in its judgement in the Workers Party case (2011), the Supreme Court proposed a system of run-off vote. Under the run-off vote system, if no candidate wins 50 per cent of the votes, a second round of voting is held in which only the top two are on the ballot and the candidate who wins the most is elected.

UNDP has also highlighted the need for “an accepted roadmap for achieving the status where every voter has full confidence in a free and fair process, from the delimitation of constituencies to the announcement of final results.” In an analysis on the electoral reforms in Pakistan, UNDP has observed that “appointing a new chief election commissioner and investigating the previous elections is not sufficient.”

We need to thoroughly study the political systems in vogue in other democratic countries.

The Pakistan model of appointing retired judges has few parallels internationally. Several countries in Latin America and the Middle East appoint only judges, but few limit them to those already retired. More common though is the appointment of eminent public figures renowned for political neutrality with expertise in fields such as law, public administration, political science or the media.

The constitutional obligation of appointing retired Supreme Court judges to lead the commission ensures that the pool of candidates for appointment is extremely small. The UNDP analysis released on January 29, 2015, suggests that reformers in Pakistan should consider if the appointment of members and staff should be expanded beyond the judiciary to attract a broader pool of talented individuals from other sectors, such as civil society, business or civil service.

Furthermore, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) needs to be made a sovereign body enjoying substantial financial powers similar to those of the Senate of Pakistan, National Assembly, the Supreme Court and other constitutional bodies because its independence can be compromised by budget linkages with the government. Parliament can discuss the ECP expenditure but should have no role in approving it. This budgetary power is similar to that enjoyed by other electoral commissions, such as Elections Canada.

However, two questions haunt the mind of a vast majority of citizens as far as the clamour for electoral reforms is concerned: Will the mere change in the voting system help in improving the governance in Pakistan? Is it the system or the people behind the system who count? Of course, it is not the system but the people behind a system who ensure its success or otherwise.

If we wish to restructure our political system and evolve a disposition that ensures not only political stability but also caters to the needs of the country and citizens, we need to thoroughly study the political systems in vogue in other democratic countries.

There are some countries which have had to create new political systems following the WWII and, in certain cases, their political systems contain good features of both the majority rule (FPTP) and the proportional representation system. One of the leading countries in this category is Germany where elections are generally direct, free and secret and held after every four years under a system which is a combination of both the FPTP and proportional representation.

In Germany, the electors have two votes, the first of which may be given to a candidate in their constituency, who is elected on the FPTP basis. The second vote may be cast for a political party, which pre-notifies to the electoral authorities and also makes public (before the actual dates of the election) a list of candidates that it plans to get returned to parliament through a state list.

On the basis of total votes secured by a political party, it also gets a proportionate representation in the parliament in addition to the constituency seats. The assembly seats thus secured by a political party are given to the members on the party’s state list in keeping with their seniority on the list notified to the electoral authorities earlier. Fifty per cent of the total seats in the German Parliament (Bundestag) are filled on the basis of FPTP and 50 per cent on the basis of state lists and proportional representation.

The rules of procedure of the German Assembly stipulate that only those political parties which gain at least five per cent of the general seats or at least three constituency seats can gain representation in the parliament. This clause does not, however, apply to the representatives of the national minorities. But, it has helped greatly in the formation of political parties commanding good following throughout Germany. Adoption of a similar clause can check the mushroom growth in the number of recognised political parties; while in the absence of such a clause today we have around 248 registered political parties in Pakistan.

A word of caution: If we introduce proportional representation system without democratising the political parties both in letter and spirit, the party leaders could start behaving like civilian dictators. Furthermore, they would always remain engaged in efforts to perpetuate their hold over the party affairs.

In addition, the political parties need to frame, with consensus, a code of ethical politics. Observance of this code should be made mandatory for all stakeholders and those persons who breach it may be penalised, including their banishment from politics for a certain period of time. Major political parties could form a joint body — board of governors — for the implementation of code of ethical politics.

Equally important in this game is the bedrock upon which the political edifice is built. If the bedrock — political parties — is strong the political structure that is built upon it would be strong. To ensure strong political parties, the German government provides some funds to the recognised political parties for carrying out their activities. There is, however, an agreed formula for the allocation of government funds: every political party gets a grant equal to the membership fee and the private donations received by it during a year.

Alauddin Masood

alauddin masood
The writer is a freelance columnist based at Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

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