Even when the last general election was counted to be relatively fair and free, the losers didn’t take long to be on the street protesting it was extensively rigged and cried out for electoral reforms.
What those reforms should be the task was assigned to a 33-member parliamentary committee.
Four years on, that committee has yet to come up with its recommendations, risking the possibility of the next general election in 2018 being held under the much-talked-about but yet to be enacted Election Laws, 2017. If the parliamentarians are concerned about the delay in that enactment, there is no sign, but the Election Commission is. Between now and the time of the next election, it is supposed to have put in place a number of arrangements which are time-consuming, but as to what their character and should be and making of a law on that is not yet available.
So there is this letter from the Election Commission to the Speaker of the National Assembly conveying in so many words that time is running out for enactment of electoral reforms the political parties have been so fervently asking for. The Commission has asked him to direct the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms to finalize its recommendations and lay the bill before the parliament for necessary legislation “as early as possible,” so the Election Commission could start and complete its work in time according to the new law. It is doubtful that will happen, given that mismatching perceptions on a number of issues beset the committee, including the use of electronic voting machines and granting of the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis.
On December 20 last year, the chairman of the committee, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, had sought feedback from all stakeholders, and promised to finalize the draft within 30 days. But nothing of the sort seems to have happened so far, adding to the consternation of the Election Commission. The Commission is under obligation to prepare a comprehensive action plan specifying all legal and administrative measures that have been taken, or are required to be taken, at least six months before the general elections are due to be held. Should the proposed law be delayed, the “quality of elections” may be negatively impacted, the Commission warned.
As to what the best international practices are and how modern day elections take place, the Election Commission has updated the parliamentary committee. However, one would be sceptic if our political elite can afford to give up corruption-riddled prevalent electoral culture. Interestingly, the day the Election Commission wrote the letter to the Speaker of the National Assembly it also cancelled the Sanghar by-election in PS-81 – amid preparations for the bye-election the provincial government had sent the deputy commissioner on leave as, according to the media, the ruling PPP feared he would not be partial to their candidate.
The ruling parties expect the bureaucracy to be its natural ally in elections, and, barring a very exceptions that happens, perhaps more so in Punjab. In Sindh, it is the wadera-bureaucracy axis that effectively delivers during the polls. Another incorrigible weakness with our electoral culture is the critical role money plays; to contest an election is simply beyond the hope and scope of middle-class politicians. So there is this dynastic politics, confined to rich and powerful families.
The so-called limits on electioneering expenditure are only on paper; these are never followed. Then there is the religious bias against women voters. In some of the constituencies they are forbidden – and at times following an agreement between the contesting parties, which never mind may include the so-called liberal democratic. Resultantly, the overall representation of the female gender in national politics is peripheral.
These are huge challenges to obtaining genuine democratic ambience in the national politics. If the parliamentary committee tasked to firm up electoral reforms can effectively meet these challenges, few Pakistanis would be overtly optimistic.