ISLAMABAD: The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) has urged the government to desist from any haste in introducing the changes to the Elections Act, 2017, particularly the adaption of electronic voting and biometric machines. It also called for a broader public debate and political discourse on the much-needed electoral reforms. The network said that unless structural and systemic issues compromising the integrity and credibility of the election processes and its outcomes are not addressed, democracy will continue to gasp for breath.
Instead of identifying solutions before an evidence-based diagnosis of maladies ailing elections and their outcomes, and as a result of democratic consolidation in Pakistan, FAFEN urges the political parties to go back to the basics, asking them to work together towards establishing an election system that can guarantee the attainment of the constitutional preamble, which says that the will of the people of Pakistan shall establish an order wherein the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people.
Therefore, any debate must start with a detailed review of the election system in vogue in the country, which has become obsolete. The First-Past-the-Post System (FPTP) practiced in Pakistan since General Election (GE) 1970 does not translate all votes polled into any representation. It yields a parliament and a government that does not represent a majority. The governments so formed have been weak as they have never represented more than 17 percent of the registered and 46 percent of the polled votes. The current government represents 31 percent of the polled, 16 percent of the registered, and eight percent of the population. This institutionalization of minority governments has never allowed democratic institutions to strengthen and democratic values to flourish.
According to a historical analysis of election results, 53 percent of all votes polled in GE 2002 did not translate into any representation, 50 percent in GE 2008, 52 percent in GE 2013, and 57 percent in GE 2018. As a result, the political parties get seats in the assemblies disproportionate to their share of votes. For example, Muttahida Majlis Amal bagged 2,604,086 votes in GE 2018 with 12 seats in the National Assembly, while Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan polled 2,194,978 votes but with no seats. The vote per seat ratio of other political parties in GE 2018 also presents a compelling case for a more extensive debate on the change of the election system.
Alternative and more advanced representation systems such as the List Proportional Representation System may be considered to ensure that the electoral outcomes translate a maximum number of votes polled into representation, reflecting political diversity. As many as 89 countries worldwide now use variations of PR systems for their representational efficacy.
Another critical area is voter registration. Unless the voter registry is complete, there cannot be an election that may be considered entirely fair. As many as 12.41 million women continue to be disenfranchised despite an intense effort by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to register them since December 2017. Since these women do not have national identity cards (NICs), a legal prerequisite for their voter registration, the onus falls on the government to take special measures to ensure they are registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) as also required by the Elections Act, 2017. There may also be a few million eligible-aged men who are not registered. Still, the actual scale of under-registration will only be established once the government notifies the age disaggregated results of the population census undertaken in 2017.
An effort towards reforming the election system will be incomplete if it did not address its inability to yield a representation of all economic classes, ethnicities, religious minorities, and sexes in the elected Houses. Tangible measures are required to make the election system more inclusive, enabling it to transform the political, ethnic, and religious diversity in Pakistan into a strength rather than a source of division and fragmentation. The model of elite democracy requires urgent rethinking through appropriate measures that can minimize the use of money in elections. Equally important will be steps to ensure the impartiality of state and government institutions in the electoral process. This issue has continued to dominate the post-election political debates and challenges for over decades but remains unaddressed.
Another critical area is delimitation. The principle of equally-sized constituencies must strictly be protected in any future reforms. There are at least 81 National Assembly (NA) and 92 Provincial Assembly (PA) constituencies that do not fulfill the legal requirement of +10% variation in the population. As a result, the National Assembly constituencies now range from 1,167,892 (NA-35 Bannu) to a population of 254,356 (NA-47, Orakzai Agency Tribal Area-VIII). A comparative assessment of the electoral constituencies reveals uneven population across constituencies. Such discrepancies also compromise the legitimacy and integrity of the electoral process. Delimitation based on an equal number of voters, as recommended by the government through its Elections Act (Amendment) Bill, 2020, could be more appropriate to overcome this issue. However, it also requires a political negotiation.
FAFEN recommends that the government should conduct a referendum as permissible by the Constitution on such matters of public importance. It must take the questions to the Pakistani people as a way to strengthen democracy. The referendum questions may include whether Pakistani people want electronic voting machines (EVMs)/biometrics and whether the Pakistani people want a PR system. Article 48 (6) of the Constitution states: “If at any time the Prime Minister considers it necessary to hold a referendum on any matter of national importance, he may refer the matter to a joint sitting of the Parliament, and if it is approved in a joint sitting, the Prime Minister may cause such matter to be referred to a referendum in the form of a question that is capable of being answered by either “Yes” or “No.”
The haste with which the government is pushing for electoral reforms, including introducing EVMs and biometric machines, is worrying. It raises serious questions on the outcome of any political dialogue that may take place on the reforms’ process. Notwithstanding the importance of technology in inculcating efficiency, transparency, and uniformity of the electoral process, the introduction of EVMs and biometrics is a significant shift. It should not be introduced without a more extended public and political discourse. An ordinance is undoubtedly not the way to take measures meant to strengthen democracy.
Only citizens should have the right to decide on matters that relate to their constitutional right to vote. For such issues of public importance, the framers of the Constitution had included the provision of a referendum. The referendum process will allow all political parties to freely take up their positions on the use of technology with Pakistani citizens. Such a step will also give a much-needed sense of political empowerment to Pakistani citizens. Each of them will be part of shaping the framework of future elections in the country.