The National Assembly has finally passed the much-delayed Electoral Reforms Bill, 2017, making several positive changes. Eight different laws are to be consolidated under one head to end any confusion, whilst lists of polling schemes are to be published at least 30 days before the polling day to address the usual complaints about last-minute changes in favour of influential candidates. A further improvement is not to exceed one kilometre distance between a polling station and voters assigned to it as well as automatic enrollment of voters upon being issued a CNIC on attaining the age of 18 years. These measures should increase voter participation. Furthermore, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) can cancel results of one or more polling stations or of an entire constituency where the turnout of female voters is less than 10 percent. Unfortunately, however, in several areas, especially in the Upper and Lower Dir, it has been a regular practice by all parties, including the mainstream ones, to collude in disenfranchising women in the name of traditions. The election law, however, already authorizes the ECP to annul results in such constituencies, but so far has failed to do that. What is needed is a strong will on the part of the ECP as well as political parties to ensure this provision is effectively implemented.
The bill still has some loose ends that remain to be tied. The PTI is so unhappy with it that it staged a walkout from the House to protest the exclusion of its four demands: introduction of biometric verification machines (BVMs) at polling stations, overseas Pakistanis’ right to vote, selection of caretaker setup by a parliamentary panel instead of government and the main opposition party’s representatives, and reconstitution of the ECP before the next election. The first two demands may be impracticable for now, but desirable as they are the proposed law could have stated so and included them for future elections. The introduction of BVMs requires a huge sum, around Rs 90 billion, which the government has been both unwilling and unable to spend. Overseas Pakistanis voting right, apparently, involves logistical difficulties that could not be resolved in the short time left for the next general elections. As for reconstitution of the ECP, it is a constitutional body and hence cannot be disbanded before the expiry of its stipulated term. But there should have been no qualms about accepting PTI’s demand that the next caretaker government should be selected through a parliamentary panel. Political considerations rather than anything else seem to have worked in this case.
The bill empowers the ECP with financial autonomy as well as administrative authority to suspend or withdraw any election official or public servant who attempts to interfere in polling. That alone though will not help given the manipulative role the administrative machinery plays under political influence. The Senate would be wise to amend this provision so the ECP, like its counterpart in India, gets the authority to respond to candidates’ complaints in a timely fashion through control over postings and transfers of relevant government officials for the duration of the electoral process. That can end unsavoury controversies that follow every election in this country.