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What genuine electoral reforms would look like

November 10, 2014


Even before the elections of 2013, one thing was obvious: Pakistan needed electoral reforms on a wide scale. — AP photo/file
Even before the elections of 2013, one thing was obvious: Pakistan needed electoral reforms on a wide scale. — AP photo/file

Reforms of any kind are problematic. Although this statement is painfully obvious, it is overlooked in nearly all cases.

The assumption is that initiating reforms is like turning the lights on in a dark room – all one has to do is flick the switch. And with this presupposition ends any chance of having a serious discussion on the subject of reforms.

Be it civil service reform or electoral reform, the discussion is hijacked by oversimplified rhetoric that creates an ‘us vs them’ narrative for easy consumption of the masses, who feel obligated to be a part of any and every discussion on anything in this age of new media.

The final outcome is a lot of talking, nauseatingly repetitive rhetorical garbage and zero real discourse.

Also read: Imran wants ISI, MI role in poll rigging inquiry

My intention here is to go beyond that and actually take up the crucial issue of electoral reform, which has been sidelined as the bigger debate between who will win the elite Punjabi cockfight between PML-N and PTI rages on.

Problems with the current model

Even before the elections of 2013, one thing was obvious: Pakistan needed electoral reforms on a wide scale.

The current electoral system is based on a two-tier government model i.e. Federal and Provincial. Additionally, a part of the federal elections process is indirect i.e. senators are indirectly elected.

Currently when Pakistan goes to the polls, people vote for their Member of National Assembly and Provincial Assembly. Members of Provincial Assembly then vote for the Senators on stringent party lines. Senators are chosen for six years while the Members of National and Provincial Assemblies are elected for five-year terms. The current constituencies were drawn back in 2002 based on the 1998 census and have not been updated since then.

So the scope of any discussion on electoral reforms is extremely expansive. Unlike what Imran Khan would have his followers believe, electoral reforms do not refer to the exercise of magically giving PTI the majority; they refer to a plethora of initiatives and processes that need to be completed.

Also read: Power politics: 3 serious governance issues nobody is talking about

To begin with, the last census was done in 2011 and based on that new constituency maps have to be drawn up. Given the significant changes in demographics across Pakistan, the new constituency maps would significantly change the balance of power in certain metropolitan cities.

Secondly, Senate elections need to be direct i.e. Senators should be elected by the people just like the Members of National and Provincial Assemblies. The government is supposed to be the representation of the people’s will, yet somehow in our republic our senate is not chosen by the people.

Thirdly, it is about time Pakistan moved to electronic voting machines, not just because it makes sense but because logistically it is cost-effective. India’s experiment with electronic voting machines has been great and created more benefits than problems.

While the suggestions above have been out there in the public domain for a while, little has been done to pursue any of them. The reason is quite simple actually; the way our system is structured, all stakeholders (as I have explained in my previous articles) have a space. Irrespective of how bad the system is or how ineffective it is, what it does do well is to accommodate all stakeholders one way or another.

What Pakistan really needs is an out-of-the-box system that will have a direct impact on the way our governance structures operate.

The current system has problems like certain parts of the country getting more development money than others, or certain MNAs or MPAs having more pull than the rest. This breeds the assumption that because MNAs and MPAs have access to development funds, they have an incentive to be corrupt, which leads to the argument that corrupt politicians over time become necessary for the system and without whom parties cannot win constituencies.

The current structure also paves way for ethnic parties to hold more sway than they should, often holding the country hostage to their irrational demands.

True electoral reforms would address these problems besides those of vote-counting and verification.

Also read: Govt, opposition may reach agreement on CEC name today

How proportional representation solves the issues

It is based on this that I say we need an out-of-the-box solution. Proportional representation is that solution.

What we have right now is a first-to-cross-the-finish-line setup where the person with most votes wins irrespective of the margin of victory. That is why we end up electing many candidates with barely 15,000 votes while others with 90,000 votes lose out in more competitive constituencies.

A proportional representation system would address this by accounting for every vote cast on party lines. Instead of electables and constituencies, political parties would create a list of priority candidates for all 272 seats of National Assembly and a similar list for all the provincial assemblies.

Parties would then get seats in the National Assembly based on their share of total votes polled in the elections. For example, if a party took 10 per cent of all votes cast, it would get 27 seats in the assembly. This way, every vote gets counted and more importantly, the party is not held hostage by local elite for development funds and party positions.

This method would also take away the need to redraw constituencies and put an end to the entire debate on the redrawal of constituencies, an oft-heated debate and one often hijacked by ethno-nationalists.

Under proportional representation, because the candidates are not tied to any one constituency, their agenda naturally evolves to national dimensions, whereby they can address issues that concern all of Pakistan and not just Punjab and Karachi. This system also forces more coalition politics with smaller parties being part of the governance alliance. If it becomes a reality, it will also take away the issue of creating new provinces, which seems to something no national party wants to address.

Also read: Beyond dharnas: 12 proposals for electoral reform in Pakistan

What I am arguing for here is not just the upper skin of reforms but deeper, structural reforms in the electoral system, which would have overarching benefits for our democracy.

Why should even a single vote go to waste? Every vote should count in the way our nation is governed, and a proportional representation system would pave the way for doing just that. It would get rid of those electables who hijack political parties for personal agendas and allow us as a nation to resolve issues like delimitation and the creation of new provinces, which we are otherwise too chicken to discuss.