Pakistan is very much on the track of achieving a milestone in its history as the elected governments at the federal and provincial levels are most likely to complete their five-year constitutional tenures. This would be the second time ever that elected governments would complete their stipulated time period. The development augurs well for the country and democracy. However, the future of democracy in Pakistan depends on the manner the next national elections are conducted. If the elections were not to be free, fair and independent, it would be catastrophic for the country and democracy. At the moment there are several issues and obstacles in the way of free and transparent elections, as well as the question of a sizable participation of people in the national polls.
The foremost problem is the installation of the caretaker governments at the centre and provinces. According to the constitution, the sitting leader of the house and leader of the opposition in each assembly would agree on the caretaker prime minister and chief ministers. In case of disagreement between them the matter would be referred to a parliamentary committee and it even it fails to decide then the final decision would be taken by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). One hopes that our political parties would demonstrate the much-needed political maturity to put in place a caretaker prime minister and chief ministers. If the matter at the centre and provinces were to be left to the ECP, it may result in problems. Already certain decisions of the ECP, like allowing absconding former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, to contest Senate elections and giving a clean chit to members of parliament and provincial assemblies, who have crossed floor, have made it controversial.
There is a strong possibility that political parties, especially the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) may start a movement to replace the sitting members of the ECP, headed by former judge, Sardar Raza Khan. The PTI has been raising objections to the behavior of ECP members and calling into question their decisions. The PTI opinion would matter a lot in this connection as it has been the party which staged the months-long sit-in in the federal capital, Islamabad, and held national life in abeyance to press for verification and counting of votes, as it levelled charges of electoral fraud against the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Although the PTI demand of resignation of prime minister Nawaz Sharif did not bear fruit, but this agitation brought the issue of free, fair and transparent elections to the fore and, thus, a key aspect of political problems in Pakistan. Ultimately, Sharif was removed from office due to large-scale charges of corruption unearthed by International Consortium of Journalists (ICJ), investigated by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT), appointed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and which presented its findings to the latter. Sharif’s removal through a judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) also brought the role of the ECP into question because it could not look into the undeclared assets of candidates.
So the role of ECP in holding free, fair and transparent elections has become important and controversial at the same time.
A key issue in the next national elections would be the reconstitution of electoral constituencies across the country. Apart from reconstitution changes in the traditional sequence of national and provincial assembly constituencies, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province it is also going to create’ controversies as well as problems for the voters. There are charges from the opposition parties of gerrymandering in favour of the ruling party the PML-N and creation of confusion among voters. For instance, traditionally in Pakistan the National Assembly constituencies have been starting from NA-1 in Peshawar, capital of the KP province. However, in the new scheme of things, NA-1 would start from the northwestern most KP district of Chitral. Such experimentation is not going to help the country or democracy.
The issue of introducing electronic voting in the next general elections is also there to test the credentials of the ECP. So far there is no clear cut strategy or announcement from the electoral body whether there would be electronic voting machines in the next parliamentary elections or not. However, from time to time the ECP has been expressing its incapacity to introduce electronic voting machines in the 2018 elections. Such expression of inability does not absolve the ECP of its primary duty to hold free, fair and transparent elections in the country. The issue of electronic voting is going to haunt the ECP and quality of democracy in the country. Electronic voting may not be a panacea to all the problems associated with electoral fraud and voter turn out, but it could go a long way to improve the electoral process and, obviously, of governance in the country.
The matter of giving overseas Pakistanis the right to vote is another very important area for the ECP and even the superior courts of Pakistan. In the 2013 elections, the ECP had expressed its inability before the SCP to take measures for voting across the world. At that time the SCP had given instructions that at least in the next elections to be held in 2018, the ECP should take steps for participation of overseas Pakistanis and the electoral body had promised to comply. However, now again there have been reports that the ECP is citing capacity issues to provide opportunity to overseas Pakistanis to vote. The PTI, which last time pressed for the voting of overseas Pakistanis, has now decided to take the issue to the SCP. One hopes that the latter would give instructions to the ECP to make arrangements to provide the opportunity of voting to overseas Pakistanis. The issue is not of capacity, but more of political will. This will has been lacking to give voting rights to overseas Pakistanis, a community which is profoundly patriotic as is evident from the sending of tens of billions of dollars of remittances of their hard-earned money to Pakistan. If the overseas Pakistanis are not given the right to vote, this would create a question mark over the freeness of the next elections.
The above is not an exhaustive list of issues to be dealt with in the next general elections. There are many other matters which need to be looked into. These include, among others, how the newly registered voters would be provided the opportunity to vote. How many new voters would be eligible to vote. What the ECP would do to improve the rate of voter turnout so as to improve the scale of representativeness of the political system.
All these issues are really important for the future of Pakistan and democracy in the country. It is hoped that much homework must have been done by the ECP and, if it has not, it must come in full swing to befittingly address all these issues.