WITH Pakistan mere steps from the finish line — an election that could mark the country’s first uninterrupted transfer of power from one democratic government to another — the conduct of the polls will be more important than ever. If carried out reasonably fairly and transparently, they could mark another milestone in the evolution of Pakistani democracy. Which is where the Election Commission of Pakistan’s code of conduct for political parties, a new draft of which was issued this week, comes in. Most of the restrictions — whose violation the code claims should be met by legal action and possible disqualification — are reasonable. They are calculated to avoid law and order problems, ensure that voters and electoral staff are not pressured, and that citizens and local administrations aren’t inconvenienced by campaigning. But historical experience suggests that many of the rules will be ignored, which is why the ECP must focus on two things.
First, getting buy-in from the political parties. The draft has been circulated to them for their comments — a useful first step. And this ECP has already demonstrated its willingness to compromise; the previously prescribed campaign expenditure limits of Rs1.5m for a National Assembly seat and Rs1m for a provincial assembly seat are being revisited because of feedback that they were unrealistic. This consultative approach between the Commission and the parties on formulating the rules should pave the way for the second key step: a good-faith effort by the ECP to actually enforce them, which is important not just for the outcome of this election but for the authority of the ECP over future polls as well. Wall chalkings and larger-than-prescribed posters might not call into question the fairness of elections, but such violations as pressurising voters and preventing women from voting both sully the polls and diminish the ECP’s authority if no action is taken against them.
This leads to another task that political parties and the ECP must focus on together — getting added to the voter list the up to 20 million Pakistani adults who remain unregistered. Nadra and the ECP have taken a transformational step by linking voter registration to CNICs, but without a noticeable public information campaign and reaching out to citizens in rural and remote areas, many will remain unregistered or will be registered at the wrong addresses. The ECP did hold a day of awareness last month, but that campaign wasn’t enough and voter lists aren’t accessible as widely as they should be. Nor can the ECP ensure all adults are registered without the help of political parties, in whose own interest it is to get more people on the rolls.