Electoral reforms are at the centre of the on-going political crisis. Although the campaign against alleged electoral irregularities during the 2013 elections has snowballed into a full-blown movement against the current government and, to some extent, the present political system, the centrality of electoral reforms remains undiminished. The following eight key areas require urgent electoral reforms:
ECP: Currently the Constitution requires that the chief election commissioner (CEC) and members of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) have a superior judiciary background. This restriction is not only unnecessary; it excludes people with administrative experience. One of the four members may come from legal background but it should not be necessary to have former judges in all the five positions. It will be also prudent to have an upper age limit for the CEC and members of the ECP. The selection procedure of the CEC and ECP members also requires review. A multi-partisan (rather than bipartisan) consultation should be built into the constitutional provision for the appointment of the CEC and the ECP members. The system of recruitment, promotions and on-the-job training for ECP staff also needs a complete overhaul.
Voting: Perhaps the largest number of complaints in the past election related to the identification of voters. It is alleged, and some of the thumb impressions verification reports of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) confirm, that a number of votes were cast by persons other than bona fide voters. In some cases, a single person had cast more than 100 votes as his thumb impression was recognised by Nadra on as many counterfoils. It is, therefore, very important that a biometric system of voter identification should be put in place so that the voter is biometrically identified prior to the casting of vote.
There are several areas in which immediate electoral reforms, at the heart of the current stand-off, are needed
Pakistan is one of those few countries where thumb impressions of over 90pc of the adult population and 100pc of the registered voters are secured in Nadra’s databank. The new technology has made this biometric identification not only feasible but economical as well. An electronic voting machine with a biometric recognition feature should be gradually introduced, starting with the next round of by-elections so that the new arrangement is fully tested before the next general or local government elections.
Scrutiny of nomination papers: The ECP had sought to amend the Representation of the People Act in order to extend the period of scrutiny of nomination forms from the present one week to 30 days. Unfortunately, the proposed amendment could not be passed by the previous National Assembly but needs to be taken up now. The Supreme Court and parliament should also play their roles in interpretation and amendment (if required) of the provisions of Articles 62 and 63 to remove ambiguities and make these provisions uniformly enforceable.
Political finance: Election 2013 witnessed new campaign trends as greater attention and resources were devoted to commercial electronic and print media funded by political parties. Presently, electoral law places a ceiling on the spending of individual candidates but no such ceiling is placed on the overall spending of political parties. There is a need to regulate the election campaign through the commercial media and place a ceiling on such spending by political parties. The ECP had also failed to ensure compliance with the ceiling on spending by individual candidates. This is an area where the ECP needs to learn a great deal from its Indian counterpart. The Indian Election Commission has, over the years, developed a highly effective system of appointing its own election observers in each constituency to ensure strict compliance with the prescribed ceiling on spending.
Caretaker governments: The procedure for the appointment of caretaker governments under the 20th constitutional amendment should be reviewed in the light of the experiences gained during the 2013 general elections. A political party that was a coalition partner in a province parted ways with the government immediately before the election and won the position of the leader of the opposition
leading to the appointment of a caretaker government which excluded the real opposition from the consultative process. It is important to devise a scheme that overcomes this loophole. The maximum age limit for the caretaker prime minister and chief ministers should also be prescribed. The consultative process for the appointment of caretaker governments also needs to include other parliamentary parties in addition to the leaders of the house and the opposition.
Statements of count: One of the vulnerabilities of the current polling practices is that the result compiled at polling stations may be manipulated or tampered with before consolidation by the returning officers. In order to enhance the credibility of the counting process, the statement of count prepared at each polling station should be posted at the ECP website as soon as it is received at the Election Commission.
Polling staff: Most of the polling staff comes from provincial government departments recommended by the outgoing provincial governments. Recruitment in these departments is strongly influenced by local politicians expecting payback at the time of election. Stronger supervision by the ECP and exemplary disciplinary action against those members of the polling staff who violate rules will act as an effective deterrent. Additionally, polling staff from one division (in the case of a large city such as Karachi which consists of several districts) or district (in the case of smaller towns) should be appointed in another division or district so that it may perform functions free from local powerful elements.
Election tribunals: As per law, the election tribunals need to decide election petitions within four months. Unfortunately, despite the appointment of full-time judges, barely half of the total petitions were decided within the prescribed period. Additional measures are needed to decide all petitions within four months.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2014