Electoral Reforms- A National Interest

By: Muhammad Ali Alvi

It was only in 2013 when a Democratically elected Government completed its five years term. However, it was not before a troublesome period of 66 years. Although a government completed its tenure in 2007 but according to critics and analysts, it is not considered a democratic period. Now after all those years of distress and struggle one can say that the Democracy of Pakistan is on the right track and it has started to hold its reins. It is a new era for Pakistan as it is witnessing the third democratic term. Despite some serious flaws one has to agree that it is the only way Pakistan will be able to achieve a near-perfect democracy.

From here the first focus should be on the free and fair electoral process so that a Government with a public mandate can work for the betterment of people and start the Nation-building process. Despite the vision of the founding Fathers, Democracy could not prevail in Pakistan from the beginning and it was only in 1970 when the first General elections were held in Pakistan 23 years after independence. According to analysts, the 1970 elections are the only free and fair elections in Pakistan till now. This shows the poor condition of the electoral process in Pakistan. The Electoral process is not only weak, it is losing its importance and credibility day by day. Due to the weak Electoral process Election rigging is a common phenomenon now and it is a part of the process. Now it is performed in a systematic and organised way by political parties and rich elites.

It can consist of three phases; pre-poll rigging, poll-day rigging and post-poll rigging. The worst and most exploited form is poll-day rigging. The traditional paper ballot system is exploited by the ones with wealth and power. Democracy gives opportunity to all people irrespective of their caste, colour, creed and social condition. But due to the paper ballot system, the marginalized and unprivileged section of society is unable to raise its voice. It is because the majority of the population in Pakistan is illiterate and unable to cast a vote properly. A large number of votes are rejected and this has a great impact on the overall result. In the current paper ballot system, the validity of a vote is at the discretion of a presiding officer. However, this discretion can help or affect a candidate, hence creating a loophole in the process. Not only illiterate people are affected by the current voting method but sometimes literate and skilful people face difficulty in casting their vote properly. The case study of Senate Elections and the biggest public sector University in Pakistan gives us a glimpse of the problem faced by the voters in a traditional paper ballot system. For example, in the election of chairman of the Senate, a total of 8 votes were rejected while the winning margin was less than the rejected votes. Similarly, in the election of the president of the General Body of the biggest public sector University, the rejected votes played a key role in defining the winning candidate. Here the important thing is that all the voters were literate and professionals. 

Then how can one expect that illiterate and marginalised sections of society can vote properly? In the 2013 General Elections, there were 35 constituencies where the rejected votes were more than the winning margin and this didn’t change in 2018 as well as there were 30 constituencies where the winning margin was less than the rejected votes.

Because of this, the turnout is low in general elections. People have no faith in the electoral process. There is a common belief in people that everything is decided and pre-planned so there is no use of the vote. It has two major consequences: a) it is stopping people from exercising their right b) it is preventing Pakistan to prevail as a true democracy.

Above all, after every election, the opposition blames the Government for election rigging. They accuse the Government of stealing people’s mandate and then the blame game begins. Despite the Democratic transitions, this has been the norm so far. The whole Emphasis of the Government is on proving its credibility while the opposition’s main focus is on proving that the People’s mandate has been stolen. It has been going on for years and it can only be ended with Electoral reforms. Electoral reforms as a whole is a lengthy process it includes but is not limited to the right of vote to Overseas Pakistani, Use of Electronic Voting Machines EVMs, Free and fair Census and other aspects. But to start with, the change in the voting method by the use of EVMs can work well for Pakistan.

The experiment of EVMs has gone well with the other countries and it should be introduced in Pakistan as well. The use of EVMs can bring people’s faith back in the Electoral Process. Hence, higher turnouts can be expected in future. People will then realise that their vote has value and they will start to vote. It will also help in dealing with the problem of rejected votes which has played a decisive role in previous elections.

If Pakistan is to transform into a truly democratic state it has to let every section of society participate. This can only happen with the introduction of reforms in the Electoral Process. Instead of blaming each other, the Government and opposition have to sit together for a greater cause for the stability of democracy in Pakistan. Years after years have passed, several promises have been made but no solid action has been taken so far.

However, the incumbent Government has shown Promise of Electoral reforms. In their bid, they have presented the Election(Amendment) Act 2020 with 62 amendments in Election Act (2017) in the National Assembly which has been passed unilaterally and is now in the Senate for final approval. 

But, the Election Commission of Pakistan has shown concerns over the proposed bill. The extent of concern shown by the ECP is grave as it is not in favour of 28 of 62 proposed amendments in the bill. 

Here, it is important to mention that along with the Government and the opposition, all sections of society must play their role in Electoral reforms. Specifically, Electronic and print media, intellectuals, scholars, Academics, College and University Professors, Religious Leaders, and Professional writers should play their role in educating society to put pressure on both Government and the opposition for Electoral reforms. 

Only time will tell what will be the outcome of these efforts but for Pakistan, the use of technology in the voting process is the need of the hour. One can hope that with peaceful Democratic transitions and Electoral reforms a truly Democratic culture will prevail in Pakistan and the essence of true Democracy will be seen in the future.

The writer is a Chemical Engineer based in Lahore. He can be reached at [email protected]