Electoral reforms, Pakistan?


No handouts, no whitewash!

Pakistani residents cast their votes at a polling station in Islamabad on May 11, 2013. Pakistanis queued up to vote in landmark elections, defying Taliban attacks to cast their ballots in polls marking a historic democratic transition for the nuclear-armed state. AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

If electoral reforms are to succeed, no matter how major or minor, it is imperative for the Electoral Commission to be independent from political pressures and influences. Tunisian politicians agreed to place electoral powers in the hands of two judges making up a commission, also one university professor, a lawyer an expert in IT and Finance each. One reform included training educated civilians who worked as presiding officers, among other reforms.

Choices for those heading the Commission becomes narrow with mandatory legal stipulation to have a Supreme Court Judge in the seat. ECP has to manage a nation-wide electioneering process; there are disputes, security issues, managing huge number of permanent staff and temporary staff deployed across the country.

The members of Commission must be fiercely aggressive about guarding their working space. Their own political preferences must not damage the quality of their work.

‘The Election Commission of India, for instance, has very aggressively used its powers and authority, including a threat to suspend its own constitutional mandate, ordering re-polling in case of fraud and regulating the transfer of police and administrative officers with partisan leanings. These actions have strengthened the mandate of the body in its effective management of the electoral process, particularly in regards to the discipline of civil servants deputed for election duties.

Independence can be compromised by budget linkages with the government. This is an area where the ECP can further develop through existing powers. The ECP has substantial financial powers, similar to those of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Senate, and other constitutional bodies. The ECP can charge expenditure directly to the Federal Consolidated Fund which contains all revenues collected by federal agencies. Parliament can discuss the ECP expenditure, but has no role in approving it. This budgetary power is similar to that of other electoral commissions, such as Elections Canada, and underlines the constitutional power vested in the ECP.” (UNDP in Pakistan Vol III Issue 4)

The electoral rolls must be made as per a resident’s ordinarily residing place or where one or more properties are held. Unfortunately, in many cases known to this scribe, unfavorable votes were registered in their cities of origin or in many cases voters were registered in cities they were not remotely connected to.

One good suggestion will be to break down election process on one day per province. This will help focus on smaller areas than handling the entire national process in one go.

The question of allowing oversees Pakistanis to vote in 2018 and use of biometric system and electronic voting machines was assigned to the Sub-committee of the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms. Whereas some local reports of 2015 state EVM may not be in use by 2018 owing to ‘technical impediments” the right of allowing oversees voter to vote may face issues as “in many countries of the Middle East, where a large number of Pakistanis are concentrated, voting is not allowed under domestic laws. Sanctity of sovereign Pakistani ground in consulates and embassies notwithstanding.” (Local NewspaperMay 20, 2015)

An interesting question arises here; Section 6 of ERA provides that a resident can exercise his vote wherever he is a resident. Section 7 goes on to add that a voter will be deemed to be a resident wherever he ordinarily resides, owns immovable property and if he owns more than one property, he has the right to choose the electoral area from which he wants to vote. In light of these provisions with an ex-pat out of the country for a given period of time where does he/she be deemed to “ordinarily” reside? Even if this hurdle is overcome, where in different nations does the voting take place? Should the Pakistan Embassies train and deploy staff for voting process which makes good sense?

Appointment of Returning Officers by ECP is crucial. It is a heavy responsibility to scrutinize the applicants’ documents. Besides Article 62 and 63 provisions, (Parliament should have reviewed and amended clauses within) some of which are impossible to quantify legally courtesy Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, which turned the scrutiny into a circus by some in 2013 election process, it is extremely important to get income and corresponding taxation certified record with application.

The Distract Returning Officers (responsible for district) and Returning Officers (responsible for their constituency) are the most important clogs of electioneering process. Both come from Federal & Provincial governments and corporations’ controlled by any such Government and local authorities. This is a legal stipulation. It is tough to expect hundred per cent impartiality. Quality and character of those selected must be above reproach.

The candidates and their entourage, irrelevant people must not be allowed in any polling station. It leads to exertion of pressure on voters no matter how indirectly and the staff deployed.

Also, a practical methodology needs to be developed for ECP to analyze that candidates are spending the amounts on electioneering as permitted legally i.e. Rs 1.5 million for National Assembly candidate and Rs 1 million for Provincial Assembly candidate. But can ECP keep nationwide track of every paisa spent by candidates? Needs thinking out and rule formation for monitoring.

Another suggestion is adding NOTA on ballot paper. This gives those voters the chance to reject all the candidates named in the ballot paper by ticking on ‘None of the above’ option. There is no reason to remain silent any more. The logical outcome of NOTA will be those elected will be more answerable to the voters. This will make them more answerable in terms of broken promises to people they represent. It will also make them more answerable to the people in cases where rampant corruption committed, if any. In the final analysis let the people decide whom to vote for. That is the essence of democracy. This should also mean they cannot be appointed as advisors and chairpersons of organisations. In case of straight 50% voting none of the above, security of all candidates must be seized and said candidates banned for contesting for ten years; parties need to put up fresh candidates instead of those put up earlier. This option relies heavily also on the transparency of the election process itself. (NOTA Excerpt from my Op Ed Jan 30, 2017)

Pakistan needs to see real changes in shape of electoral reforms. Not a whitewash!

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