THREE years have passed since the brothers Sharif stood gleefully on their Model Town residence terrace shortly before midnight on a balmy Saturday night. That night, they presumably looked ahead towards five years at the helm with cautious optimism. Optimism — on the back of their emphatic victory; and caution —- well, they’d been there before and knew that things don’t always quite work out.
Yet could they have imagined this ride? A ride which, quite apart from dealing with acutely pressing governance issues, has found them battered at every turn about their very mandate to govern itself.
The allegations of mass-scale rigging and deficiencies in the electoral process struck a chord early on, and the ‘D’ word has refused to go away since. So much so, that after three years, there still remain serious questions about the government’s legitimacy. More disappointing is that the debate, if it can be referred to as such, has consumed the political landscape, media and even the judiciary, when time would have been much better spent elsewhere.
In such circumstances, one would think that addressing this issue would be of some importance. Alas, in the words of Charles De Gaulle, “politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians”. There is, of course, but one possibility: they simply don’t care. Hear no evil, see no evil. However, if the PML-N, or any other party for that matter, would like to free its hands next time, the only way forward is electoral reforms.
The Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms was formed in July 2014 on the eve of the PTI’s azadi march. In total, it received 316 recommendations. The committee, under the leadership of Ishaq Dar, has had 14 meetings. The sub-committee, headed by Zahid Hamid, has had 55 meetings. The sub-committee of the sub-committee, convened by Arif Alvi, which pertains to overseas voting, electronic voting machines (EVMs) and biometric print verification, only formed in January this year was due to submit its progress report in April.
If the PML-N would like to free its hands next time, the only way forward is electoral reforms.
The rules of procedure of the parliamentary committee stated that it will present its report to parliament within three months. In July last year, one year after its formation, Ishaq Dar stated that the sub-committee had completed 80pc of the task. The remaining 20pc has, however, remained elusive. Some months ago, the sub-committee stated that it would present the final draft of the reforms package within three weeks. But those three weeks turned out to be just like those three months.
To its credit, PTI has attempted to expedite the process. In March, the party moved a resolution in the Senate for the purchase of EVMs even before the recommendations of the committee have been presented. It’s also safe to say that had it not been for their pressure, election reform wouldn’t have seen the light of day. The anxiety of the party is admirable. It would’ve obviously been more so if their representatives hadn’t decided to boycott the parliamentary committee for some eight months whilst they were busy slandering the electoral system atop a container.
But let bygones be bygones.
We now have another two years. These things take time, and there isn’t much of it. For example, it’s telling that EVMs were first developed in India in the 1980s and adopted nationwide for the time first time more than 20 years later. Another example is in relation to the proposal for overseas voting. The obstacles are numerous. Consider that election material will need to be securely transported to and from different Pakistani missions around the world and hundreds of polling staff will be required to travel to conduct the election in various countries. All this requires extensive planning, training and testing.
Another aspect engaging the committee is the legislation. Pakistan has seven different statutes dealing with election matters. The committee is seeking not only to amend these laws, but also codify them into one law. There are also constitutional amendments required. Only last week, the parliamentary committee announced that it will propose to amend the qualifications in the Constitution for the appointment of the chief election commissioner and members of the ECP.
Once one sub-committee presents to the other sub-committee, and the sub-committee presents to the committee, the reforms will be presented to parliament. Given that the parliamentary committee has representation from all major political parties, one would hope for the bill to sail through parliament. But it’s still a long way home.
The chief of the EU Election Observer Mission, Michael Gahler, recently said, “For election reform to be effective, time is needed for implementation that begins well before the next election is called…Now is the time for reform decisions and actions. Further delays to reform risk problems recurring and undermining the next general elections. These problems can be avoided if parties and institutions show decisive leadership at this crucial time.”
Just in case our politicians were considering paying heed to such counsel, the chairman of the committee nonchalantly poured water over the burning fire: “There is still time of two and half year remaining for the next elections so the committee was not in hurry.”
These words reek of disingenuousness. The reform proposals will require substantial time for testing and implementation. This is inescapable. If the government is sincere about meaningful election reform in time for the next general elections, the time is here and now.
Come senators and congressmen, please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall/ For he who gets hurt, will be he who has stalled/ There’s a battle outside, and it’s ragin’/ It’ll soon shake your window, and rattle your walls/ For the times, they are a changin’ . — Bob Dylan.
The writer is a barrister who assisted the former chief election commissioner in the 2013 general elections.
Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2016