Against all the odds and conspiracy theories, Pakistan received good news this week with the announcement that general elections will be held on July 25, 2018 for the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies. Amidst the preparations for the polls, political parties have been considering the allocation of tickets to their potential candidates.
While parties are going through this critical juncture, they should consider limiting candidates to one per constituency. The proposal merits thought as fielding the same candidate in multiple constituencies results in many problems. Such candidates can only retain one seat and have to surrender other seats if they win more than one. This firstly puts an unnecessary budgetary burden on the national exchequer. Secondly, when candidates pick one seat and vacate other seats they won, they reject mandates given to them by voters, which undermines respect of the voters. Thirdly, it can potentially result in loss of party mandates and cause delays in the formation of the government. Let’s explore these arguments further based on the empirical data, where available.
In 2013, 23 persons were elected to more than one seat, which involved 49 national and provincial assembly seats. Imran Khan ran from four constituencies and won three seats out of them. Nawaz Sharif won the two seats he contested from. Shahbaz Sharif won one National Assembly seat and two provincial assembly seats in Punjab. Maulana Fazlur Rehman contested on three National Assembly seats while Javed Hashmi ran from Multan and Islamabad for membership of the National Assembly.
As per the constitution, they retained only one seat of their choosing and surrendered other seats. Therefore, the Election Commission was required to conduct by-elections on 26 national and provincial assemblies’ seats on August 22, 2013.
In its report on 2013 elections, the commission shows that it spent about Rs55 million on by-elections to 26 seats vacated by candidates running on multiple seats. The cost was more than double of what the commission spent on by-elections after 2008 — it had incurred approximately Rs21 million on by-elections for 25 seats vacated in 2008 for similar reasons. This cost could be higher in 2018 elections due to inflation, increases in registered voters and the higher number of polling stations to be established in each constituency as per the Elections Act 2017.
Contesting on multiple seats also affects voters’ representations in elected houses. As electors vote for a particular candidate or a party, when they vacate those seats, it affects their representation as the seat remains vacant until a by-election is held — for about a period of three months at least (in 2013 by-elections were held on 22 August whereas, the National Assembly started functioning in early June 2013). The situation can also affect the formation of the government as it can affect the majority of a party or a coalition. Secondly, when a candidate vacates a seat, s/he also rejects the mandate s/he has got from the voters. Voters invest time to make choices and cast their ballots, all these efforts go into waste. Therefore, such practices could also undermine the engagement between voters and parliamentarians. Empirical evidence suggests that candidates and parties pay a price for this.
Looking at numbers from 2013 elections, out of by-elections on 11 National Assembly seats, 5 were retained by same parties whose candidates vacated them, whereas 5 were won by another party — one seat was vacated by an independent candidate. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) vacated five seats (two out of three won by Imran Khan, and one each by Asad Qaiser and Javed Hashmi. In the subsequent by-elections, PTI lost both seats vacated by Imran Khan, one each to Awami National Party (NA-1 Peshawar) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) — (NA-71 Mianwali).
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-F), vacated two National Assembly seats and lost them both to the PTI candidates in subsequent by-elections. In case of by-elections for Punjab Assembly seats, the PML-N lost two seats to PTI and Pakistan Peoples’ Party — one of the two was in Rajanpur which was vacated by Shahbaz Sharif and was won by a PTI’s candidate.
While there could be multiple reasons behind such loss of seats, some analysts have often argued that voters do not take it well when candidates/parties do not respect their mandate and reject them in by-elections. Due to all these reasons, the proposal to legally limit candidacy to one seat per person remained under discussion in the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms. However, no legal reforms were made in this regard. But nothing in the legal framework prevents parties from limiting their candidates to run from only one constituency.
Can there be reasons for fielding candidates in multiple constituencies? Indeed there are. As some analysts have argued candidacy of high profile politicians remains vulnerable to conspiracies and they can be disqualified during nomination process or rigged out of a seat. Therefore, if they run from multiple seats, they would have backup options. There is some merit to this claim; for example in 2008 elections, papers of Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif were rejected in some constituencies while accepted in others. But those elections were held under a different regime; in 2013 this situation was hardly observed against any leading politician, except for General Pervez Musharraf.
It also appears that most of these leaders tend to win most of the seats they contest from. So they have high chances of winning the elections even when running from one seat. Additionally, the new election law, Elections Act 2017, has introduced many safeguards and transparency requirements which could potentially guard against any such apprehensions that parties or candidates might have. Therefore, there are valid reasons supporting the proposal to limit candidacy to one constituency.
With such merits to limiting candidates to single constituencies, parties can consider implementing this proposal. By doing so, they will not only reduce the burden on the scarce taxpayers’ money but they will also give respect to the voters’ mandate. It will also contribute towards augmenting engagement between parties and voters and avoid risks for potential delays in the formation of new governments. This, in turn, will contribute to strengthening democratic stability in the country.