Culture of dissent or deceit?

Published March 2, 2015
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

WHY are sane voices opposing the proposed 22nd constitutional amendment that aims to scrap the secret ballot for Senate elections? Agreed, party heads calling for the change are probably driven by the urge to entrench their stranglehold over MPs further. But should we worry about motivations or outcomes? What critics are saying is essentially this: because party heads are dictators who disregard wishes of their MPs, let’s retain the secret ballot to enable MPs to deceive them, treat such deceit as dissent, and celebrate it for keeping our democracy healthy.

Main arguments against the amendment include the following: a secret ballot is meant to preserve the privacy and freedom of choice of a voter, and is thus essential for democracy and must be retained; party heads are terrible people focused on monopolising power and running autocracies under the garb of democracy and any move adding to their influence directly or indirectly must be resisted; and the Senate in its present form serves no useful purpose and fixing the procedure for its election is pointless when the whole thing needs an overhaul.

The arguments being made by proponents of the secret ballot for Senate election are not just misconceived but also ironical. When the secret ballot started emerging as a norm in democracies a couple of hundred years back the object was to protect the political privacy of the voter, and shield him from intimidation and potential vote-buying. In Pakistan, it is a matter of historical record that the secret ballot, not just in Senate elections but also in those for prime minister/chief minister when they were conducted in secrecy, cultivated a market for horse-trading and vote-buying.

The logic of the secret ballot is simple. A citizen’s right to freedom of association is protected and he can make such association public by joining a political party if he so chooses. But if he wishes to keep his partisan preferences anonymous, his right to privacy includes political privacy. The winner in an election represents the entire constituency and not just those who vote in his favor. Thus it is deemed essential to ensure that once the winners are in control of the state’s resources and coercive apparatus, those who voted against them don’t stand out and become easy targets for retribution.


Our Constitution ought to have excluded from the secret ballot all elections involving MPs.


This logic has no application to votes and other legislative choices made by MPs for three reasons. One, MPs, as members of political parties, have declared political loyalties and the question of their political privacy simply doesn’t arise. Two, their position is not comparable to that of an average voter who is vulnerable to intimidation or denial of service delivery by elected representatives and the party in power. And three, MPs, as representatives of people exercise delegated authority in an indirect election and can’t claim a right to have their actions shrouded in secrecy.

In other democracies too it is uncommon to hide the choices made by legislators. Our Constitution ought to have excluded from the secret ballot all elections involving MPs. If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people, don’t people have a right to know what choices their representatives are making in their name to be able to hold them to account? Would we rather continue with horse-trading (remember Changa Manga?) and illicit auction of Senate seats because open and transparent elections might empower party heads further?

Have we concluded that grown men, representatives of thousands of citizens, will never have the integrity or courage to speak their minds or dissent from the view of their party head unless they have the secret ballot to hide behind? Can you cure our power culture of sycophancy, hypocrisy, expediency and timidity through the secret ballot? If MPs can’t muster the guts to raise their hands in full public view to vote for who they think they should, how will they do the job they are elected to do ie legislate for the people in accordance with their conscience?

When luminaries of political parties got together to finalise the 18th Amendment, they agreed that the Constitution must not mandate internal party democracy. They also agreed that voting by an MP against the party line in an election for the prime minister/chief minister or in relation to a vote of no-confidence, money bill or Constitution amendment bill qualifies as defection. So if Mr Raza Rabbani had not voted in favor of military courts he would have attracted disqualification for defection under Article 63A. He only had two choices: he could either resign or cry.

Here is the scary bit about our Constitution: If four men — Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, Imran Khan and Altaf Hussain (or handpicked party heads filling in for them on paper) — agree to amend the Constitution in whatever way they please, all other warm bodies representing the PML-N, PPP, PTI and MQM in parliament would be bound by such a verdict. The point is that existence of Article 63A or deletion of Article 17(4) (that mandated intra-party elections) is not the cause of our politicos’ servile attitude but its consequence.

In our prevailing social and political culture of duplicity and expediency, speaking one’s mind attracts costs that we are unwilling to incur. That is why there is no dissent in assemblies, cabinets, courts or even boardrooms etc. Everyone is busy trying to suck up to everyone else ahead in the power pyramid. So long as this culture prevails and prospers, secret ballot for MPs will not help them grow a spine. It will only create an opportunity for the entrepreneurial ones to sell their vote along with their conscience.

The only purposeful critique of the proposed 22nd Amendment is that it is largely insignificant given the drastic reform our Senate needs. We must have an empowered Senate directly elected by ordinary citizens of each province. The Senate’s term ought to be revisited. And its elections scheduled at such time that they serve as a referendum on a government’s performance midterm. This will provide for electoral accountability in the middle of the National Assembly’s term, work as a safety valve enabling people to vent and keep government on its feet.

The writer is a lawyer.

sattar@post.harvard.edu

Twitter: @babar_sattar

Published in Dawn March 2nd , 2015

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