The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) members of the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms have submitted their proposals to its sub-committee tasked with finalising changes in the laws to ensure free, fair and transparent elections in future.
The last elections in 2013 produced in their wake a raft of allegations and accusations by PTI regarding ‘rigging’ in the polls, but it was a case they were unable to present convincingly. Objective observers were inclined to see the PTI’s complaints of being ‘robbed’ of victory more as hype or self-deluded unrealistic expectations based on the party having convinced itself of its victory even before the polls, based on the undoubted momentum the party had acquired since 2011.
Nevertheless, any election is only credible beyond doubt when all stakeholders accept its overall results. That then constitutes the starting point of a stable democratic system. The proposals of the PTI centre on procedural changes as well as basic alterations requiring a constitutional amendment. According to Law Minister Zahid Hamid, the former would be discussed in the sub-committee and the latter referred to the main parliamentary committee.
One of the fundamental proposals requiring a constitutional amendment seeks the transfer of the process regarding the appointment of a caretaker government from the consensus between the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly to a parliamentary committee having representation of all the political parties in parliament, with 50 percent representation of the treasury benches and 50 percent of the opposition, proportional to their strength in parliament. And the same should be the case in the provinces.
Apart from the increase in breadth and depth of representation in this proposal, it has to be viewed in the context of the controversy raised by the PTI in 2013 regarding in particular the Punjab caretaker government. In that light, the proposal makes eminent sense as a move towards a caretaker set-up that enjoys the support of all parties. The PTI took particular umbrage at the role of the Returning Officers (ROs) in the 2013 polls, accusing them of ‘rigging’. These ROs in 2013 were selected from the lower judiciary, but failed to satisfy everyone of their objectivity and fair conduct of the elections.
The PTI therefore proposes that ROs in future be drawn from all the services, enjoy a good repute, and comprise officers of not less than grade-19. There is no quibble with this suggestion, except perhaps for the suggestion that ROs also be taken from the military, which should be deployed inside and outside all polling stations, accompany presiding officers transporting polling bags from the polling stations to the ROs’ offices and be present inside the ROs’ offices till the completion of the results.
This proposal unnecessarily wishes to drag the military once again into a political role, an idea that is neither good for democracy nor for the military itself. On the other hand, the PTI’s proposal to use electronic voting machines to avoid stuffing of ballot papers and other malpractices sounds attractive so long as the technical side is satisfactorily handled. The PTI also wants biometric verification of all voters before the issue of ballot papers. Electronic voting could also help the eight million Pakistani expatriates qualified to vote to exercise their right. But the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) would be required to invite top computer experts with a view to ascertaining the fact whether or not EVMs can be hacked.
This exercise will surely add credibility to polls. Political gatherings, car rallies and loudspeakers constitute an integral part of election campaigns and should therefore, in the PTI’s view, be allowed. Only the prime minister, chief ministers, ministers, mayors and other holders of public office should be barred from campaigning, but this bar should not be extended to MNAs/MPAs as they do not hold public office in the PTI’s perception. Surprisingly, the PTI wants the secretary of the Elec
tion Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to be a retired person not more than 65 years old. This sounds anomalous since many posts allow retirement at 65. He should, the PTI suggests, be appointed by the ECP itself and not the government. ECP members should be appointed by a parliamentary committee on the same lines as suggested above regarding caretaker governments. No fresh projects/schemes should be initiated by the local governments after the announcement of the date of general elections till the polls are completed.
The thrust of the PTI’s proposals underscores the need for an autonomous, strong, financially and administratively independent, transparently appointed ECP, which the party considers key to holding free, fair elections whose results would be accepted across the board. The autonomy sought for the ECP includes its internal rules being framed by the ECP itself rather than the executive.
The general thrust is positive, even when it reflects the PTI’s grievances, real or imagined, regarding the 2013 elections. Pakistan could take a leaf out of neighbouring countries’ experience in this regard, particularly the incremental empowerment of the election commission in India, which has for long years now obviated charges of rigging or unfairness.