NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 19

Elusive electoral reforms

Recent by-polls show the trust of political parties and people is waning in the electoral process of Pakistan. Charges of rigging and foul play are growing after every general election and by-election and it will be a challenge for the country to hold fair elections in 2023. It is the responsibility of the government and the opposition alike to sit together to reform the process for the sake of democracy in the country.

Sadly, the government and the opposition are not serious about the reforms and trying to play politics on the issue. They are not even willing to start a debate on the issue, let alone reach a consensus on it. It is a fact that opposition parties in Pakistan oppose every move of the government, even if it is for the betterment of the country and all stakeholders. On the other hand, every government in Pakistan attempts to impose its will on other parties. The result is that people are losing confidence in the present system and democracy and debate has started about replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential system of government.

In recent by-polls, all parties, including the ruling party, alleged massive rigging, but it failed to wake them up. However, if the system is not reformed, it will have far-reaching consequences for democracy. The deadlock will not only harm the ruling party, but all opposition parties, democracy and people. The government aims to bring reforms at any cost, even through ordinances, without engaging the opposition.

The relationship between the government and the opposition has reached a point, where both are not willing to trust each other. The opposition believes the government’s every move aims to harm it. It also believes the government reforms are not enough to address pre-poll and election day rigging. However, it should still sit with the government to find ways and means to address them, instead of boycotting the process altogether. If political parties are serious about the issue or other public problems, they can find their solutions in the parliament.

As the opposition is adamant about its boycott, the government has accelerated the reform process. President Arif Alvi has asked the stakeholders to make a prototype of electronic voting machines (EVMs) for the lawmakers. The government has also introduced two ordinances, aimed at enabling the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to use EVMs and take measures to allow overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes.

The government’s electoral reforms consist of four parts – the use of EVMs, introduction of e-voting for overseas Pakistanis, biometric verification and legislation. EVMs have been developed in the country and the government has unveiled its legislative agenda for the purpose, while work is under way on biometric and e-voting mechanism. The PTI government intends to introduce, delete or amend 49 sections in the Elections Act 2017. Besides the use of EVMs and allowing overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes, the government wants to ensure democracy in political parties, as it claims, and parties should have at least 10,000 members in order to get registered as political parties. Secondly, a new section is being introduced, which would make it mandatory for political parties to hold annual conventions, where people could speak up and give their opinion on the performance of the party and its leaders.

The fourth big reform, according to the government, aims to deal with complaints about polling staff and officers. A new provision would allow for the right to challenge the appointment of a polling agent or officer within a period of 15 days, if anyone had reservations about it. Another reform would be for electoral rolls to be prepared on the basis of the registration data of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). The government believes it will help check pre-poll rigging. The delimitation exercise in constituencies, based on the population, would also end and the list of registered voters with NADRA would now be used instead. The government also intends to amend the law for open balloting in Senate elections.

The government may have good intentions, but experts differ over the practicality, reliability and efficacy of e-voting, especially in Pakistan. A pilot project of the Election Commission of Pakistan, which covered 35 polling stations in Peshawar in 2017, failed miserably. It faced a large number of technical problems and people also expressed their mistrust in voting machines’ accuracy. According to former ECP secretary Kanwar Dilshad, EMVs could only be introduced by the next general election due to financial, logistical and technical constraints. “At least R1 trillion is required to replace manual voting with digital voting procedures, including electronic voting machines, biometric verification machines or Internet voting for overseas Pakistanis. Over Rs60 billion is required for the procurement of 350,000 EVMs alone,” he explains. Critics say the government has only floated the idea of e-voting, as it knows it cannot arrange for such a huge amount for it.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with the reforms proposed by the government, though it needs a huge amount. However, the opposition is not willing to cooperate with it at any cost. The reforms prove the government is still confident of winning the next general elections despite humiliating defeats in recent by-polls. On the other hand, the opposition’s attitude shows it is not certain about its victory in the next election. The reforms are the only option for the ruling party and, for that matter, all political parties to curb rigging and foul play in elections. They will have to sit together for the larger interest of the country and democracy; otherwise people will completely lose their trust in the electoral system of the country.

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