NationalVolume 12 Issue # 24

Another election without reforms?

A parliamentary committee has approved the Election Bill, 2017, and it appears the next election will also be held without significant reforms and lead to a greater mess than the 2013 polls.

The 33-member committee was set up on July 25, 2014, and it was supposed to accomplish the task of electoral reforms within three months. However, it took about 33 months and 100 sittings to complete its task, which is still incomplete and many political parties have already started expressing their apprehensions about the next election. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has even threatened that it will not allow the government to hold the polls without reforms, proposed by it. On the other hand, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) warned that delay in the passage of the law could affect the next general elections.

In fact, the committee had raised many eyebrows in the beginning when it hastily approved a new eligibility criterion for the appointment the Chief Election Commissioner and members of the ECP, but delayed reforms, which was its main objective. Another objection was the manner in which the committee operated as almost all its meetings were held in camera. Even some members of the committee said the reform processes should have been more transparent and open as it would have invited better proposals from various quarters.

The PTI had submitted its 10-point proposals to the committee, but most of them were rejected by major stakeholders. Its prime demands included voting rights to overseas Pakistani, use of electronic voting machines (EVM) and biometric verification machines (BVM), appointment of returning officers (ROs) from the armed forces and a change in the mechanism for the appointment of the caretaker setup before the next general election. Two major political parties, the ruling PML-N and the PPP, as well as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) opposed granting voting rights to overseas Pakistanis for different reasons. The two parties also rejected a change in the current mechanism for the appointment of the caretaker government and drawing returning officers (ROs) from the armed forces.

In 2014, an inquiry commission was formed under the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the 2013 general elections after Imran Khan held a 126day sit-in at Islamabad. The commission said the elections were in large part organised and conducted fairly and in accordance with the law. However, around 20 million votes could not be verified since 35pc of Form-15 could not be found. Almost all political parties contacted the commission to provide “rigging” proof. Even the parties, which had distanced themselves from the PTI’s 126-day sit in, rushed to the commission with “evidence.” The verdict was not only against the PTI but almost all parties of the country, except the ruling party. They still believe the elections were rigged even after the commission report.

The judicial commission also observed a number of shortcomings in both organising and conducting the elections. “The ECP did not seem to have any way of knowing how things were progressing on the ground either prior to the election or on Election Day. There was a lack of planning regarding the determination of extra ballot papers and the method of calculating the number of excess ballots was not uniform throughout the country,” it noted. The judges reported that the ECP did not have a monitoring wing. “It had no effective system of monitoring whether or not its directives were being implemented on the ground. The ECP needs to build its own capacity in terms of human resources and recruit and train more officers who can both act as master trainers and play an active, effective and informed role during the election process,” the commission recommended. It also pointed out that the ECP was responsible for keeping the post-election material in safe custody. The storage space was apparently inadequate, as the manner in which polling bags were kept was totally disorganised and haphazard. “There were chances of people entering the sealed rooms and interfering with the stored post-election material, as the stamp paper was also kept in the same storage rooms,” it noted.

A review report of the Election Commission of Pakistan also acknowledged many shortcomings and irregularities. The report, compiled by a committee of officials from the ECP, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), said that teams appointed by the ECP for campaign monitoring could not deliver and violations of the code of conduct by some candidates went unnoticed in some areas during the pre-elections phase. A centralised scrutiny cell was set up in the ECP Secretariat with members from NAB, SBP, FBR and NADRA to verify the candidates’ nomination papers. The cell did not perform effectively, the report added. The ECP had introduced a computerised Result Management System (RMS) for the first time but it failed to work.

It appears the next elections will also create unrest in the country as there is nothing new in the bill on polls reforms. In the present system of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the Chief Election Commissioner has only nominal powers, as he is bound by the majority opinion of the remaining members of the ECP. If majority members rule against any candidate or legislator, the Chief Election Commissioner cannot reject their observations. The committee for electoral reforms held 100 meetings in 33 months, on which Rs1b was spent from the national exchequer, but it failed to produce desired results. It appears the proceedings and deliberations of the committee were kept secret because the government wants to hold the next election on the basis of its tested rules and procedure.