As elections are likely to be held in January 2024, there is renewed talk about improving electoral participation and making elections credible. On that basis, a discussion paper by Tahir Mehdi holds great value, and must be discussed.
Tahir Mehdi is an activist – compiler of stories of ordinary Pakistanis from across Punjab – development professional, electoral analyst, journalist, and a freelance filmmaker and writer. His recent documentary about floods in Sindh and the disaster of the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD) is a marvellous piece of research work, facilitated by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) facilitated.
Mehdi’s latest work is a 100-page paper ‘Making Elections Credible: A discussion paper on electoral reforms’, which was commissioned by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). As HRCP Chairperson Hina Jilani mentions in her foreword, elections in Pakistan have remained a contested subject where the losing side always questions the election’s outcome.
Undemocratic forces have attempted with full force to manipulate elections and have mostly been able to achieve their targets with varying degrees of success. These repeated manipulations put the integrity of the whole exercise under question, and though people express their will, elections lack credibility. This has had serious consequences for the country’s political stability. Over the last few decades, unelected forces have considered elections just as a tool to fulfil the claims of procedural democracy.
Tahir Mehdi has analyzed seven areas in Pakistan’s electoral system that require reform. As he puts it in no uncertain terms that establishment’s manipulation of the electoral process is an open secret, compromising the integrity of the whole exercise and posing a significant hurdle to strengthening democracy in the country. He says: “The hopes raised by the Charter of Democracy in 2006, the democratic transitions of power in 2008 and 2018, the passage of the 18th constitutional amendment and the Elections Act 2017 have all been dashed by the events of the past five years.”
The second area that he highlights is the delimitation of constituencies that was undertaken after the official notification of the final results of the 2017 population census was announced (2022). The delimitation process failed to address the major problems as it did not follow the principle of equal suffrage and confined widely different populations within the limits of administrative units (districts).
There are no principles and rules for the creation of new districts, and arbitrary carving out of new districts has become an indirect method of influencing constituency boundaries. Though a recent amendment in the Elections Act 2017 has enabled the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to equalize constituencies, disregarding district boundaries, the ensuing mismatch in administrative and electoral boundaries, may give rise to new problems.
The third point is about the linking of the right to vote with the possession of national identification cards (NICs) which has converted a basic civic right into the citizen’s responsibility – the constitution or any other law does not bind the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to register every citizen.
NADRA issues an NIC to those who apply for it and fulfil certain conditions. This has deprived millions of marginalized people of their right to vote – unfortunately the vast majority of them are women. Millions of women and other marginalized groups remain underrepresented in electoral rolls, and it may take decades to register every marginalized person as a voter.
Tahir Mehdi also discusses the question of independent candidates who can join a political party after defeating the candidate of the same party. This is sheer violation of basic principles of representation and weakens the development of parties as political institutions.
Currently, the system allows one person to contest on as many seats as s/he pleases, and then vacate all but one. This is a mockery of people’s mandate and waste of resources while fulfilling just one person’s political ambitions.
Then there is the question of qualification and disqualification of candidates under Article 62 and 63. That has become a major tool in the hands of extra-democratic forces to victimize dissenting politicians.
From constituency to constituency, the gender gap varies and the law currently stipulates checks against any action that bars women from exercising their right to vote. But there is no mandatory action to encourage or ensure women’s participation.
Tahir Mehdi suggests that this approach needs revision as in many countries voting is a mandatory duty of all citizens. Polling agents play a vital role in making the polling processes transparent, but currently they lack the capacity to perform optimally. They need special attention from political parties to perform better. Reserved seats for minority groups is the next area of discussion. Religious groups have expressed their reservations about the allocation of such seats. A major complaint is that ‘members’ elected through the system are neither accessible to them nor have power and resources to address their issues.
Personal relationships with party leaders play a significant role in their reaching a representative status. Most such ‘representatives’ winning on reserved seats are not well-connected with their communities and lack legitimacy; they end up doing little to serve the purpose of minority voices.
Almost the same applies to most of the women parliamentarians elected on reserved seats but having no constituency of their own. They do not end up at par with male members elected directly from geographical constituencies. Many women have performed much better on the floor of the house, still their parties keep ignoring them for allocation of development funds as they remain at the mercy of the party’s central command.
Mostly, female relatives of male members with established strongholds in the party hierarchy get preferential treatment. Women’s direct and independent participation in elections as voters or as candidates has remained miniscule. Lastly, two main aspects of election financing need attention: election campaign expenses and the requirement to annually submit the parliamentarian’s statements of assets and liabilities. “Though the Election Act 2017 has set a limit for the expenses a candidate can incur for their election campaigns, another clause provides that a candidate cannot be held responsible for any expenses made by another person without their express permission.”
This means that practically there is no limit on election-related expenses, and it preserves the contesting of elections for the ultra-rich elite who can win elections for their parties.
There needs to be a better legal framework for parties to raise funds centrally and spend more on party campaigns to remove the burden of campaign expenses on their individual candidates.
These candidates also submit their statements but can determine the value of their assets themselves. Usually, this self-assessment is below the current market value, and there is no way to rectify these estimates after any reliable verification. The discussion paper also suggests an independent and thorough audit of general elections to provide a solid ground for discourse on electoral reforms.
Independent experts must conduct such audits under the supervision of a parliamentary body with representation from across the political spectrum. This will help in the analysis of all documents and records of general elections with the objective of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of election management in the country. Recommendations in the discussion paper are all worth considering and can help introduce meaningful electoral reforms in the country.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts@NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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