The electoral system practiced in Pakistan has become highly controversial as it is roundly branded as full of malpractices. Due to the increasingly bad reputation of the electoral system, it has been under severe criticism since many years. Currently, the apex court of the country is hearing a presidential reference about the voting pattern followed in the elections of the Senate of Pakistan in which the Election Commission of the country has been badly mauled as the superior judiciary has shown utter discontentment about the position it has taken about the matter. Moreover, during the recent by-elections, the inefficacy of not only the electoral system but also of the Election Commission was badly exposed.
The fragility of Pakistan’s democracy is unique even in nascent democracies. It is due to an invisible arbitrary force that holds overriding clout in political domain and, to obtain desired results, massively intervenes in electoral process. The intervention is aggravated by the fact that the perception and goals of this arbitrary force are in direct opposition to democratic ideals and practice. Therefore, contrary to electoral reform in established democracies where people value traditional practices associated with electoral process, Pakistan requires a real and complete break with the past.
It is easier said than done but any reform content is required to make it clear that any interference, overt or covert, in an election by anyone from outside the designated electoral machinery will be done under pain of punishment. This aspect should be widely publicised and independent watchdogs, local and international, should be exhorted to look into this aspect specifically. It should become a mandatory part of proposed electoral reform package.
While considering electoral reform it should be kept in view that adherence to ‘winner-take-all’ Westminster electoral practice complicates electoral process in Pakistan. This method shuts out the loser from any share in state’s resources even if the winner gets minimum majority. Such radical loss for half a decade plays havoc in an agrarian society like Pakistan where influence of familial connection runs supreme. The impact of such win-lose situation is widespread because it is estimated that almost 45% electoral representation is vested in political families.
Although similar connections in political arena are clearly found in industrialised democracies but their impact there is marginalised by intense pluralism ensuring dispersal of equitable power to all stake holders. The only relief granted in this respect could be reduction in assembly tenure from 5 to 4 years. Five year’s tenure is rather long in the current fast moving political environment. The British reduced tenure of Parliament from 7 years to 5 in 1911 and are now debating it to make it 4 years fixed tenure (5 years is otherwise the maximum tenure).
In UK, since 1979 four general elections were called after four-year parliaments, while three, in 1992, 1997 and 2010, were called after five years (Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly follow four year tenures). Those parliaments running for five years were symptomatic of falling government popularity pushing it to go the full length. Reduction in legislature tenures may not adversely affect representative prowess but may increase performance level.
Electoral process is the mechanism through which peaceful and consensual transfer of political power takes place in a democratic polity. Political parties, the vehicles of democratic political power, are driven to governance through an election mechanism. As with all exercises associated with power the electoral process is also not free from manipulation. The predominantly subjective nature of electoral process further complicates the matter.
The intense pull of this subject has resulted in a plethora of electoral reform proposals forwarded by countless organisations, specialists, commentators and wide array of the public. Since this is a public welfare measure affecting all and sundry therefore a vast input from a cross section of citizenry should always be encouraged along with wide publicity accorded to this exercise.
Before proceeding further it may be mentioned that an electoral system is the only process that determines allocation of parliamentary seats commensurate with voting strength of a party. The three systems generally in vogue are Plurality system, Majority system and Proportional representation. Elections in UK and Congress in the US, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh etc. are held under Plurality system that follows first-past-the-post method (US Presidential election is a combination of Plurality and Majority systems).
In Majority system the electoral process moves forward once candidates secure more than fifty per cent vote to qualify in more than one ballot. It is practiced in Russia, France, Austria, Afghanistan, Finland, Portugal etc. Proportional Representation allocates seats equivalent to number of votes secured. Although its applicability is fraught with calculating difficulties yet it is practiced in Germany and it is also employed with certain variations in many countries on different levels of public representation.
It is imperative to deliberate upon genetic composition, underlying assumptions, inherent limitations and supple variations of electoral reforms in Pakistan so that they become all encompassing and considered legitimate by citizenry. They should be aimed to assist an institutionalised democratic system by consolidating the right to rule. More importantly, the electoral process should be considered a continuous national exercise irrespective of the fact that its occurrence is periodic. One of its essential aims should be to improve quality and equality of representation. It should also address manageability of party system since it could not solely be done through legislative measures construed widely to favour political class only. The electoral reform should clearly draw lines between the roles played by executive and judicial sectors.
The emphasis placed on voter turnout should be watered down. Democratic polities often complain about voter apathy but accept it nevertheless because their long electoral experience has taught them that it is the expression of average General Will that counts and not its level. In Pakistan the urge for high voter turnout is directly proportional to rigging therefore it should be realistically assessed, even curbed, if possible. A push to achieve higher voter turnout distorts the electoral picture, exposes it to manipulation and increases election costs. It also attracts smaller groups to resort to malpractices just to prove their numerical influence.
Continuous delimitation of constituencies should be an essential ingredient of electoral reform package. A fixed time frame for delimitation exercise may be initiated keeping in view the relatively fast changing demographics and population shifts in the country. It is rather surprising to observe that Pakistan with a population of 210 million elects a representative house composed of only 272 directly elected members. Pakistan’s typical political matrix may be better served if the areas of representation are reduced increasing number of representatives. Dispersal of political mandate paves way for not only maximising representation but also accommodating disparate political ambitions.
The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in Pakistan has always been a bone of contention. Viewing this position in the backdrop of cynicism prevalent in Pakistan since the last three decades whereby a majority of occupants of high public office is mostly shunted out of office unceremoniously but the opprobrium faced by CEC is exceptional. Barring the first 4 CECs who were civil servants, rest of them were from judiciary. The lip service paid to this office could be well gauged from the fact that out of 24 incumbents, 8 worked on acting charge and three CECs remained in office during Zia’s presidency doing nothing between 1977 and 1985. Since 1973 the position is constitutionally allocated to judiciary. Ultimately, a civil servant was assigned the duties of CEC but it has become manifest that his office has no teeth left. TW