Spearhead Analysis – 31.01.2017
By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Pakistan’s last election season in 2013 and also a trigger to its first democratic transition of power, are perhaps two important cornerstones in the country’s contemporary political history. Voter turnout was calculated at 55%, a fresh and staggering figure in light of volatile and sometimes autocratic regimes; election campaigns and rallies pulled the middle class out of its self-inflicted exclusion with the presence of a new party at the center stage; new political categories of women, youth, minorities, and the professional class helped in creating a distinct wave of political representation; accountability and corruption were highlighted with fresh effort, energy, and enthusiasm; and public institutions and in effect the entire socio-political system stood at the cusp of great change and reform. Alas, the ‘great change’ was not meant to produce a radical transformation.
To say free, fair, and transparent elections are an essential ingredient to a pluralistic democracy is an understatement; it is only through an organized voting framework that the public can express its desires. And it is precisely this desire that is then legitimately carried forward at each tier of the political system. While the 2013 general elections have defined Pakistan’s current stability to some extent, the subsequent proposed reforms are a factor that has over the course of the incumbent term held the country back from realizing its full potential in democratic transparency. 2013 witnessed numerous incidents of malpractice, rigging, improper investigations, and incompetence. Mass rigging was not only witnessed, recorded, and documented by the civil society, concerned political parties, and international bodies but vote-recount was made into a priority in many consistencies.
Where derailment of democracy was a chief concern of the past, the debate has now shifted to the scrutiny of democratic actors that are involved in the process of democracy and governance, like the Electoral Commissions of Pakistan or various parliamentary bodies. In addition, in recent years the highlighted issue of electoral anomalies has forced the repair of ‘nuts and bolts’ of the system. Substantial progress has been made through constitutional amendments that have reconfigured electoral institutions, technical improvements such as the computerization of electoral rolls, and a noteworthy addition of a relatively free but an equally hawkish media.
Following PTI’s sit-in in Islamabad and PAT’s grievances with the government’s mismanagement of justice, a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms was constituted in July 2014. While the report seems to be taking more than 23 months, the committee has since expanded its scope and has made some election-related developments. The committee made “recommendations in respect of electoral reforms, ensuring free, fair, and transparent elections, including adoption of the latest technology, available for holding elections, along with draft legislation, including constitutional amendments, if required for this purpose”. But in truth, there is much ground to cover before the next general elections planned in 2018. The Parliamentary Committee’s detailed report, in the form of the Elections Bill 2017, is being debated at various forums. The ill unifies nine separate elections laws. To start with, steps have been taken to strengthen the ECP financially and administratively, provisions of voting by overseas Pakistanis, better system for publication of result data, opening of district returning officers’ for ECP staff, greater use of NADRA data for preparations, and revision of electoral rolls and delimitation of constituencies, grant of more time for making representation to the ECP and filing of objections, regulation of local government elections, and special measures to secure women’s voting rights.
While the proposed reforms are a step in the right direction, there are also serious concerns regarding other clauses. Although the ECP has the power to suspend election officials, it is the government that will decide the prevention and transfers of other government officials such as the local police or district commissioner during the polling process. It is alarming since historically these government officials have played a huge role in influencing elections on the local level. In addition, the ECP can no longer disqualify elected members found to have submitted false statements of election expenses or false wealth statements- a move that conveniently resonates with the premier’s recent statement on the Panama issue. Such matters will now be referred to the session court, given its lengthy procedures and appeals. But the biggest problem yet is that the bill limits freedom of information and access. The media can no longer be part of the scrutiny and are not authorized to be present during the polling process. It seems it is now the discretion of the ECP as to which parts of electoral process the media will have access to. Not only that, ECP officers can face up to five years in prison and a fine of Rs5 million if they ‘leak information or data to any other person’. And yet the penalty for those involved in the rigging process is far less, about 3 years in prison and a fine of Rs100, 000.
If the ECP does not use its given powers to ensure a smooth electoral season, it might not be the failure of the law, but it will be a failure of its right implementation. It is not only free and fair elections that constitute democracy, but the public institutions that are responsible for that democratic process. The ECP is an empowered body, one that has to necessarily take steps to assert itself over other state institutions. After all it holds within it the ‘will’ of the people. If electoral reforms are not taken seriously, 55% of Pakistanis will perhaps never leave their homes and ask for not only legitimate representation, but also refuse any kind of political assimilation necessary for pluralism, equality, and dignity.