Poll reform

23 Nov 2016

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THE transfer of electoral rolls from Nadra to the Election Commission of Pakistan may seem like an obscure bureaucratic exercise that has little substantive relevance to the holding of free and fair polls at the time of the next general election. In reality, however, the process of transferring electoral rolls — done as per an agreement between the ECP and Nadra — indicates just how far off the agenda poll reforms and the holding of meaningfully free and fair elections have fallen. According to a recent report in this newspaper, no less than an ECP member himself raised concerns about the electoral body’s capacity to handle an electronic databank of approximately 100m voters. Moreover, the procedure for adding new voters to the electoral rolls has yet to be determined. These developments reiterate at least three flaws with the electoral process in the country. First, the holding of free and fair polls, while vital to the democratic process, is inherently a technical and bureaucratic exercise. Within that process, the sanctity and accuracy of electoral rolls is paramount — if the list of voters itself is compromised, tampered with or in some way incomplete, voters are disenfranchised and the electoral process is damaged. Incomplete and inaccurate electoral rolls are a historical problem that surely should now finally be resolved.

Second, the stalled ECP reforms continue to be a troubling road block in the quest for free and fair polls. While parliament has gone to the extent of passing a constitutional amendment to modify the composition of ECP membership, the quantum of resources, the staff and the powers at the disposal of the body are still areas of significant problems. Ultimately, the ECP can only be effective if the orders issued by its members are implemented scrupulously and in a disciplined manner across the country. The ECP apex consists of four members and a chief election commissioner, but below it sits a vast implementing system — and it is often at those tiers, especially at the local level, that problems arise. Thus far, the very valid needs and enhanced resource allocation for the ECP are matters that have largely been ignored. Third, are overall electoral reforms really a part of the government and combined opposition’s agenda? While some persistent MNAs continue to pursue specific electoral reforms, the parliamentary committee responsible appears to have all but run out of steam. Electoral reforms cannot happen without parliament’s interest and attention.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2016