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Reforms in the making

What happens over the next few months and how fair the next general election is going to be will determine not only the relevance of the electoral reform package but also the kind and quality of democracy the people of Pakistan are allowed to enjoy

Reforms in the making

The electoral reforms bill, prepared by a parliamentary committee after three years of spasmodic labour, is long on incidentals and short on essentials. It seems the lawmakers are afraid of taking radical steps needed to empower the citizens.

The positive features of the bill include attempts to streamline the working of the Election Commission, providing for an action plan six months before the polls, and devising a system for management of results.

The longstanding demand for nullification of poll results wherever women are prevented from casting ballots has been conceded, voting at a polling station or in the whole constituency will be cancelled if the number of women’s ballots are less than 10 per cent of the total votes cast. Provision has also been made for special efforts by the ECP to increase the enrolment of women if in any NA constituency their number is more than 10 per cent less than male voters. (Efforts will also be made to increase, registration as voters of non-Muslims, persons with disabilities and transgender persons.) The political parties have also been asked to enroll more women — whatever that may mean.

Then there are some welcome proposals, such as fixing a timeframe for the appointment of election officials, greater reliance on the ECP’s own staff, and allowing both the candidates who secure equal votes the right to serve in the relevant assembly.

The point that has been made over and over again is that even dictatorial regimes have created election frameworks complete with up-to-date voters’ lists and rules for casting of votes and their accurate counting, etc. But polls under such system are not considered free or fair because the citizens are not free to make their choices independently.

The main problem with the reform-makers apparently is that they have worked on the eight election related laws and tried to spruce up the text here and there, instead of first determining what is essentially needed to ensure free, fair and democratic elections.

For instance, they have tried to improve the law on political parties by replacing the ‘Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ with ‘Constitution’ and the ‘Election Commission of Pakistan’ with ‘Commission’ or by reducing the use of ‘or’ between the clauses of a section. One does not find any evidence of a serious plan to promote the rise of political parties that fulfill the demands of democratic organisation, responsible conduct and effective accountability.

One does find, however, a queer provision for enlistment of political parties. Any political party created after the new law takes effect will have to apply to the ECP, within 30 days of its formation, for enlistment and submit in addition to its constitution a statement of audited accounts and a list of two thousand members with their signatures and thumb marks and NIC numbers. Apart from the ridiculous nature of the demand for documentation, the provision revives the scheme of registration of political parties that was touted by Gen Ziaul Haq and his chailas and was struck down by the judiciary.

The point that has been made over and over again in debates on electoral matters during the past several decades, and which continues to be ignored, is that even dictatorial regimes have created election frameworks complete with up-to-date voters’ lists and rules for casting of votes and their accurate counting, etc. But elections under such system are not considered free or fair because the citizens are not free to make their choices independently, nor are they free to contest elections with guarantees of an even playing field for all candidates. The criticism is valid in Pakistan’s case too.

Read also: The dividends and the limitations

Is it a secret that a large number of people in our country cannot freely exercise their right to vote because they are virtually slaves of big landlords or heads of bradaris or pirs? Is it a secret that landlords and other influential persons keep in their custody the CNICs of voters living under their control and these cards are used by the keepers without caring for their owners’ choices? Why was it impossible for the reform-makers to avoid providing for punishing these manipulators of electoral processes?

As regards freedom to contest elections and right to a level-playing field for all contestants, especially those with limited means, the bill has closed the election route to a majority of people as they cannot afford the cost. The issue was raised before the Supreme Court by the Awami Workers Party and the court devised a method for ensuring that all election expenses are met out of bank accounts exclusively maintained for this purpose, and this scheme has been included in the bill. But proper maintenance of accounts or observation of the ceiling on expenses are not the same thing as enabling the people of modest resources to enter electoral contests.

The new bill makes the prospects for poorer people’s participation in elections more difficult by raising the expense limit for candidates in the national and provincial elections from Rs2 million, and 1.5 million to Rs4million and 2million respectively. The overall expenditures will rise by the same margin at least. A system that bars a majority of people from contesting elections cannot guarantee fair elections.

Another critical issue in debates on electoral issues has been the need to keep striving to ensure that those elected truly reflect the pluralist nature of our society and represent nearly all socio-economic groups. The reservation of seats for women and non- Muslim citizens are steps in this direction but it is necessary to check from time to time whether the existing arrangement really serves the purpose. The fact is that both women and non-Muslims are dissatisfied with the method of filling the seats reserved for them. The bill offers no answer. The least the authors of the bill could have done was to take a look at the three options for filling women’s seats suggested by the Nasir Aslam Zahid commission on women’s rights.

The question of adopting a hybrid system of election and filling some seats through the existing first-past-the-post system of single-member constituencies and filling some other seats through proportional representation and nominating persons of talent on the latter seats, was seriously debated at a recent workshop organised by AGHS Legal Aid Cell. The idea is not new. It was intensely debated in Britain a century ago before the talented Tories were defeated by ordinary workers’ offspring. A vulgar version was introduced by Ayub Khan when he formed a cabinet of experts who were barred from being members of and answerable to the parliament.

Tehreek-i-Istaqlal and advocates of the German system held detailed discussions on this idea during the 1990s and produced several detailed studies. The Musharraf regime’s bid to reserve assembly membership for graduates also had its roots in the search for talented lawmakers. In any case, there is no reason why the electoral reform committee should not have examined this method of election. It still deserves to be examined on merits.

Tagged with the question of increasing the quantum of talent in legislatures is the urgency of reserving seats for the peasantry and labour in all assembles. Apart from giving representation to peasants and workers, who together constitute a majority of the population and yet cannot get elected under a system skewed in favour of the elite, such a step will help in ending the alienation of the masses from politics and, thus, strengthen the foundations of democracy.

The electoral reform measures have been discussed at a time when democracy is considered by many well-meaning observers as synonymous with corruption and all sorts of wrongdoing. The greatest disservice to democracy done by immature and irresponsible politicians is that by offering the people an utterly debased version of democratic governance for decades they have turned the common men and women against democracy itself. Moreover, this is the time when parliament is going through an extended eclipse, and the ordinary citizens are more worried about their empty stomachs than the form of government the ruling elite wishes to adopt, of course, in its own limited interest.

The foremost issue today is whether the establishment will permit a fair election at all. Mahmud Khan Achackzai raised this all important issue in the National Assembly the other day. It is possible to expunge his remarks and misgivings from the assembly’s record but who will erase the apprehensions etched deep in the citizens’ minds?

What happens over the next few months and how fair the next general election is going to be will determine not only the relevance of the electoral reform package but also the kind and quality of democracy the people of Pakistan are allowed to enjoy.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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