While the country is transfixed on the PML-N’s wrestling bout with the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), the calendar continues to creep ahead. With July underway, General Elections 2018 are now less than 12 months away. And if you take a casual drive across the provincial capital of Lahore, you’ll find its landscape destroyed by ugly hoardings and banners, extolling the great achievements of the ruling PML-N party during its current tenure — it’s not campaigning, but more like softening up the voters for what’s to come shortly.
In early 2014, a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms (PCER) was formed, tasked with debating, discussing and finally making recommendations for electoral reforms in the country. This committee then sought recommendations from various parliamentarians, lawyers, civil society organisations and the general public. In total, over 1200 proposals were received by the PCER. A sub-committee was formed in October 2014 to ‘examine and make recommendations regarding the tabulated proposals received by the committee…’
From its inception in October 2014 till December 2016, the sub-committee held 20 meetings and finally submitted its report regarding the draft elections bill 2018 to the PCER.
In April 2017, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) wrote to the National Assembly speaker, warning that time is running out for electoral reforms, asking him to direct the PCER to ‘finalise its recommendations and lay the bill before parliament for making necessary legislation and enact the Elections Act 2017 as early as possible so that the ECP could start and complete its work in time according to the new law’.
The first question to ask is, how far has the internal debate within the PCER moved, and are we any closer to the bill being presented in parliament.
“We have reached consensus on nearly 90 per cent of the recommendations put forth,” says MNA Shafqat Mahmood from the PTI and member of the PCER. “However, there are certain fundamental topics on which the debate is still going on.”
These fundamental topics include electronic voting, voting for overseas Pakistanis and biometric verification as well. Mahmood claims that the ECP is not playing a positive role on these issues. ‘Biometric verification is not such a big deal. While electronic voting is slightly complicated, it could have been tried in the Karachi by-elections but it’s not going to happen,” he says.
The ECP has, in turn, placed the blame on NADRA, claiming that it has refrained from sharing voter data.
“Electronic voting will unfortunately not be a part of the 2018 elections as there just isn’t enough time,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President of Pildat, an Islamabad based public policy think tank. “Electronic Voter Machines (EVMs) will have to be tested and snags rectified, there may be a pilot run in some constituencies before its rolled out across the country.”
“What is likely is that the results will be made public, but there won’t be enough time for delimitation based on its findings,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob.
The same is the case with voting rights for overseas Pakistanis. “There is no law that gives the basic contours of the system (for their inclusion),” says Mehboob. “Will they participate through the internet or via postal ballot?”
The mechanism needs to be worked out, but as one hears often with regards to electoral reforms, ‘there’s just not enough time’.
On a positive note, Mahmood believes that all the parties that make up the PCER are pro-electoral reforms. “It’s not just us (PTI)”, he says.
However, there is a potential roadblock coming up, in the form of the recently concluded national census. “After the census is published, there will be fresh delimitation of constituencies,” he says. “Yet there is no clarity on when it’s going to be published”, he says. “If it’s published in April or May, there won’t be enough time for candidates to prepare.”
It was reported in the last week of June that the provisional results of the census will be released at the end of the current month, July.
Experts are of the opinion that after the census is published, the weight of the urban areas will increase, so will their seats. Consequently, seats from rural areas will decrease. This will have a major impact on how political parties gear up for the elections.
“The elections will happen, with or without the census results,” says Mehboob. “What is likely is that the results will be made public, but there won’t be enough time for delimitation based on its findings — this in turn will create a very embarrassing situation for the ECP.”
As things stand today, the electoral reforms bill is yet to be tabled in the parliament, and Mahmood is hopeful that it will be presented some time in September. Some experts have warned that this may not give the National Assembly enough time to debate it thoroughly — something with which Mehboob disagrees.
“Electoral reforms have been under debate for the last three years,” he says. “Even a month is now more than enough, and it ought to be tabled in the next session.
However, Mehboob adds that more than electoral reforms, the real issue is the quality of management of elections. “You don’t need a law for this,” he says. “Existing laws need to be implemented correctly.”
What Mehboob is referring to, is the report of the 2013 General Election Inquiry Commission, which while declaring the election free of any organised rigging, pointed out numerous flaws related to planning and execution, on the part of the ECP.
“To be honest, most of the reforms that are critical to the electoral process have already happened in and around the 18th Amendment — upcoming reforms will only further improve the process,” he says.
All eyes are now on Ishaq Dar, and when the bill is presented in Parliament.