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Making Pakistan’s electoral laws truly representative and democratic


Pakistan’s democracy has been shaken again by the Senate elections. Securing a majority is important for the ruling coalition because laws passed by the National Assembly (NA) have to be approved by the Senate as well. Controlled by the opposition, the Senate was preventing this, severely impairing the political effectiveness of the Pakistan government.

Many years of “horse trading” in Senate elections have shown that secret voting promotes corruption, and bags with cash change hands before vote taking place. The ethical flaw aside, it also impairs the principle of proportionality in the Senate because members of one party vote for another party. The relative strength of the parties in the NA is not mirrored in the Upper House. 

The insistence of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to stick to the provisions of the 1973 Constitution for a secret ballot despite pledges by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the ‘Charter of Democracy’ caused the usual corrupt practices to be repeated in the Islamabad open seat that was won by Yousuf Raza Gilani getting 48 votes against Abdul Hafeez Shaikh’s 44.

The subsequent election of the Senate Chairman exposed the PDM’s (Pakistan Democratic Movement’s) machinations of vote buying during the Senate elections. The Presiding Officer for the Senate election, Senator Muzaffar Hussain Shah rejected seven votes. These were not stamped as required inside the box against of the candidate’s name but on the candidate’s name. Repeated verdicts of the Supreme Court (SC) said that the condition for a valid vote is that the intention of the voter be clearly expressed on the ballot paper. In the subsequent voting for the Deputy Chairman, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Afridi got 54 votes against the PDM candidate Maulana Haideri’s 44. The PDM vote remained unchanged, thus undercutting their claim of majority, seriously undermining the Election Commission of Pakistan’s creditability and that of its Chairman in calling it a “fair election”.

Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated since the 17th century in Europe. The idea of election is not indigenous to the subcontinent. It was introduced here by the British colonial power after the mutiny of 1857 as a means to perpetuate their rule in the subcontinent. Pakistan in 1947 accepted democracy as the most ‘progressive’ means to rule the modern State it intended to become. The repeated delay in and manipulation of general elections resulting in multiple military take-overs. It has shown that becoming ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ is a difficult thing in a society that is strongly divided and has not had time to develop the democratic mindset based on equality needed for democracy. Consecutive Constitutions were developed by feudal and tribal and religious leaders sitting in the National Assemblies who were more interested in staying in power than in how to represent the needs of the population of Pakistan which is mainly poor and uneducated. 

But though change is slow, things are changing. Forty years since 1973, Pakistan must reform the electoral system which has proven to be counterproductive to the requirements of our time. We need a more effective representation of the different parts of our population and more credibly. A pioneer in electoral reforms, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), has demanded “Proportional Representation” since the 1970s. This would override the strict ‘winner takes it all’ principle and allow smaller parties to be represented. To quote my article “Reforming Pakistan’s Electoral System” dated Sep 11, 2014: “The Supreme Court (SC) ruled in June 2012 in the Workers Party Case that the British model FPTP system violated the principle of majority (citing over 40% of races in the 2008 elections won with under 50% of the vote) and be replaced to ensure true representation of the people and rule of the majority by switching to the Proportional Representation System (PPS) and adopting run-off voting for single seat elections, a second round being held if no candidate gets a clear majority,” unquote. 

Musharraf’s regime from 1999 to 2009, made several important changes, such as reducing the voting age to 18 years, increasing seats in legislatures, increasing women’s reserved seats, making graduation a qualification for candidates, promulgating the Political Parties Order of 2002, redefining of the concept of foreign funding for parties, the scope of legislators’ defection as well as affidavits and statements of assets and liabilities.

The main change made was the (re)introduction of the ground level of representation, the Local Bodies (LB). LBs have to play a ground-breaking role in making democracy and political participation tangible to the broad masses. If run intelligently, it is a way to solve the local problems of people immediately. It is also a training ground for future politicians and voters. Reserved seats are an important means of representation in a highly diverse and segregated society like ours. Apart from seats reserved for women, there is a need to effectively represent the religious minorities. Existing preoccupations make it necessary to ensure their interests by seat reservation. Ethnicity, and within that tribal and biradri affiliations, will continue to play a role in elections for the time being. This kind of division can only be eliminated by resorting to the PPR system rather than the FPTP system. 

Ethnic political identities are reinforced, unfortunately, by the ethnic policies of political parties and by regional elites that want to stay in power by that means. Given the grossly uneven socio-economic development of the different regions and ethnicities of Pakistan, a national policy aimed at overcoming these developmental differences will contribute to the weakening of regional separatism. The equality of and support to multiple cultures in Pakistan is a precondition to this.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is an autonomous, permanent and constitutionally established federal body responsible for organizing and conducting elections to the national parliament, provincial legislatures, local governments, and the office of President of Pakistan, based on the election laws consolidated in the Election Act 2017. They also demarcate the delimitation of constituencies and preparation of electoral rolls. A member from each province represents their respective interests headed by the Chief Election Commissioner. 

The Prime Minister (PM)’s recent outburst against the ECP about the Senate election is only partly valid. While the ECP has to implement the secret voting as per the Constitution, it also has to prevent horse trading and corruption that undermine the creditability of the election process and the stature of the elected candidates. If this is found impossible then the ECP must ask the NA to change the electoral laws so as to ensure a process that can be properly supervised and corruption made impossible. Other loopholes in the electoral law pertain to the provision that spending by other than the candidate would be exempted from the legal ceiling of election spending and that corporate funding to political parties is also allowed, although it had been prohibited earlier.

Another problem is the demand that any public office holder should be a "Sadiq" and "Ameen", especially in a State that calls itself Islamic. In a landmark verdict the Supreme Court (SC) in 2018 ruled that disqualification handed down under Article 62 (1)(f) of the Constitution is for life. Heading the bench, Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar remarked before the verdict was announced, that the public deserves "leaders of good character". Implementing the Sadiq and Ameen conditions should have prevented Mr. Gilani from being accepted as a candidate for the Senate election. And while Article 62 pertains to candidates running for elections to the Parliament it should be extended to all public office holders including the judiciary, ECP and others.

Recommendations about reforms were made in my article “Reforming Pakistan’s Electoral System” dated Sep 11, 2014, which said: “Major electoral reforms should include, viz. (1) All elections including the Senate should be by direct vote (2) Aspirants must first get elected at the basic community level (3) They cannot compete for more than one seat and (4) They must be a registered income tax payers giving proof of residence with local taxes paid for at least 3 years (declaration of assets and that of their immediate family reconciling with their known sources of income) (5) The winner must get more than 50% majority, otherwise the first two candidates would go through run-off elections, (6) Elections to the Assemblies and the Senate must be preceded by LB elections ,with individual stakeholders self-governing at the grassroots level (7) No Assembly for more than 4 years (8) 25% seats in the Assemblies above the present composition should be on the basis of Proportional Representation (PR) of party voters cast. Similarly 25% must be reserved for the losing female candidates on party basis (9) The Presidential Elections must be by direct vote with candidates from political parties having not less than 10% of the popular vote in the National Assembly elections. The Governors of Provinces should be similarly elected and (10) There should be accountability of all aspirants. Initial scrutiny should be followed by a detailed one”, unquote.

The creditability of elections of Pakistan over the decades has remained weak. For many citizens they are a power game of the ruling elite and of the ‘establishment’. While electoral laws have to be continuously adjusted to new situations and unforeseen flaws have to be eradicated, it is not only a problem of laws and their implementation. Political awareness and democratic mindsets have to be strengthened especially among our younger generation who are the custodians of a democratic Pakistan. Students’ interest must be awakened to become active citizens of our country. The new National Curriculum Framework of Pakistan from class six onwards must contain an extensive knowledge of the political system, its electoral laws and representative system.

 (The writer is a defense and security analyst).