BY ASIM SHAHZAD
LAHORE: Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) stressed for larger political consensus to bring into question the legitimacy of future elections, and any effort to amend the Elections Act, 2017 without such consensus may cause political instability that can potentially reverse the process of democratic consolidation in Pakistan.
FAFEN sees with concern the imbroglio between the government and the opposition parties as a counter-narrative of the democratic traditions and practices that had seen the treasury always ensuring a political consensus on particularly constitutional amendments and electoral reforms.
Despite political fragmentation, political parties had developed a consensus on electoral reforms in 2017 after three years of rigorous consultations under the aegis of a multi-party parliamentary committee.
The government must uphold such practices as a way forward on critical amendments to the election law, which are being proposed through the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020, and Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021. Both these bills have already been passed by the National Assembly without any debate on June 10, 2021.
Although the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020 proposes major changes in the process of delimitation, voter registration, priority-listing of women candidates for reserved seats, and political party regulations, the public discourse has only focused on the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and overseas voting proposed by Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021.
Both the bills merit an in-depth discussion among major political parties, whether or not represented in the incumbent parliament and provincial assemblies, for a broad-based consensus as they will have far-reaching consequences on the election system.
The responsibility of achieving such a consensus rest with the federal government. The government and political parties should not transfer the responsibility of making political decisions to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) through vague legislative decisions. Dragging the ECP into such controversies will undermine the credibility of future elections and their outcomes.
The parliament should rather invest in strengthening the capacities of the Election Commission through definite legislative measures and appropriate financial resources. Unnecessary criticism of the Election Commission for giving independent reviews/opinions under its constitutional mandate as provided under Article 218 (3) is tantamount to disrespecting the constitution and falls within the ambit of Section 10 of the Elections Act, 2017.
Of particular concern is the government’s aggressive push for the introduction of EVMs and overseas voting without providing adequate legislation catering to the complex questions that are necessary to be addressed before the introduction of any technology at a national scale. The proposed amendment allows the ECP to procure EVMs for casting of votes in general elections without detailed consideration of its legal, regulatory, and administrative impacts.
The choice of technology and type of machines to be acquired have been left to the ECP but without a qualification that the technology/machines to be procured should fully respond to the existing provisions of the Elections Act, 2017 viz-a-viz voting and counting processes as provided for in Sections 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89 and 90. Any changes in these sections foreseen as a result of the introduction of EVMs should first be enacted in the law.
The election law should not be amended to suit the limitations of technology/machines to be procured, and neither should the voting and counting provisions as contained under Sections 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, and 90 be altered through changes in the rules. Such legal changes may compromise the parliamentary authority over legislation.
The proposed amendment is also unclear on whether ECP can procure technology/machines that include a built-in facility of voter authentication and verification as provided for in 84(2) of the Elections Act, 2021. Such technology/machines can compromise voter secrecy and a voter’s choice may be tracked. In addition, the role of EVM vendors before the initiation of any procurement process should strictly be prohibited.
Similarly, the proposed amendment requiring the ECP to enable overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote in their country of residence is also strewn with inadequacies.
The amendment reflects the government’s intention that an IT-based system may be developed with the assistance of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), but it has not provided any corresponding changes to the election law that may be required to enable potentially 9.5 million overseas Pakistanis to vote.
The amendment does not respond to critical questions such as the responsibility of the determination of qualification for overseas voters, particularly Pakistani workers abroad, as provided under Section 94(2) of the Elections Act, 2017; responsibility of their registration as voters and allocation to the constituency i.e. their choice or permanent address on National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP); a mechanism for ECP to enforce the legal requirement as provided for under Sections 30 (claims and objections) and Sections 37 (verification); the mechanism for provisions of electoral rolls to candidates as provided under Section 41 (2), which only contains the addresses of voters where their vote is registered.
In this case, the voters will not be residing on those addresses; provisions pertaining to campaigning and expense limits by candidates when they will have to campaign overseas; verification and authentication of voters on the election day as required under Section 84 (1); timing of counting of overseas votes whether during the preparation of provisional results or during consolidation proceedings; voting time for overseas Pakistanis living in different time zones.