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Incomplete electoral reform

August 24, 2017

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WHILE the Elections Bill 2017 does propose some welcome changes in the poll system, it does not go far enough to provide for democratic elections.

Quite welcome is the unification of eight election laws — the three laws on preparation of voters’ lists, delimitation of constituencies and conduct of elections, the two election orders of 2002, the Senate election law, and the laws on political parties and allotment of symbols. However, it was not unfair to expect the parliamentary committee, set up three years ago, to draw up a more comprehensive plan for guaranteeing fair and democratic polls.

Also welcome is the proposal to empower the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to nullify the polling at any polling station or in the whole constituency if the percentage of women in the turnout falls below 10. Preventing a woman from voting is an offence under Section 171-C of the Penal Code. The same section also criminalises the use of religious edicts to influence a person to vote, or not to vote, for a candidate. These provisions have been retained without meeting the demand for making the law clearer and the punishments stiffer.

Another pro-women provision (Section 47) requires the ECP to publish annually disaggregated data about men and women voters in each constituency — a good step — and make special efforts to increase women’s enrolment if their number on the voters’ list is over 10pc less than men’s.

The anti-democratic Articles 62 and 63 figure prominently in the bill.

A similar provision has rightly been made to guard against under-registration of non-Muslims, disabled and transgender persons.

If two candidates secure an equal number of votes the winner is chosen by the drawing of lots. The bill says both candidates will be declared elected and each will sit in the assembly for half the term. Lots will still be drawn but only to determine who will go into the assembly first.

Perhaps the two significant reforms envisaged by the bill are the establishment of a results management system to ensure expeditious compilation and transmission of poll results, while the other proposal calls for the preparation of an action plan by the ECP — six months before a general election is due — that should cover all the steps required to hold orderly elections.

Regrettably enough, the confusion about the nexus between the census and delimitation of constituencies has been confusion worse confounded. The existing law says the provinces’ seats in the National Assembly “shall be reallocated after each succeeding census”. The comparable provision in the bill says: “The Commission shall delimit constituencies after every census officially published.” The use of the last two words appears unnecessary as census figures can be used only after the findings have been released. The use of “officially published” here smacks of unfair play. The government can prevent the ECP from doing its duty by simply postponing publication of the census report (and possibly punishing XYZ for the delay, to establish its bona fides).

Further, while the bill specifies the period for lodging and the disposal of objections to the delimitation of a constituency, there is no indication as to how much earlier than an election constituencies should be delimited. The point is important because candidates and voters both deserve to know quite a few months before the polls the limits of the territory where they can exercise their electoral rights.

The bill in its present form does not exclude any religious group from inclusion in the common electoral rolls. The provision (7-B) of the Chief Executive’s Order of July 31, 2002 that had inserted a discriminatory clause in the order issued six months earlier has not been included in the bill. Hopefully, this position will not be changed and citizens belonging to all denominations will be put on a common electoral list.

The bill does not reserve any seats for Muslims as non-Muslims are free to contest the general seats. There is now no justification for retaining in the declaration by Muslim candidates the paragraph relating to the “finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)” and denial of being an Ahmadi. However essential the desired affirmation may be, it is not necessary to devalue it by excessive use especially where it is not warranted.

Further, the anti-democratic Articles 62 and 63 figure prominently in the bill and these can be invoked during the scrutiny of nomination papers by the returning officers. Giving the latter power to reject nomination papers after summary inquiries is patently unjust as the matter of a candidate’s eligibility may require proper judicial adjudication.

The not-so-good reform proposals also include the raising of the expense limit for National Assembly candidates from Rs1.5 million to Rs4m and for a provincial assembly candidate from Rs1m to Rs2m. This is obviously in continuation of the policy of reserving elections for the rich. The silence over party donations to a candidate or the parties’ overall expenditure is hard to condone.

The raising of the amount of deposit for National Assembly candidates from Rs4,000 to Rs30,000 also does not seem justified. A civil society workshop organised by AGHS, a legal aid centre, had suggested a raise to Rs10,000 and that sounded reasonable.

That the bill does no concede the popular demand for allowing the overseas Pakistanis’ right to vote will be widely deplored. Also left out is any reference to the need to dispense with the reservation of seats for technocrats as all parties like to recruit retired bureaucrats/military officers and there is absolutely no justification for including ulema in this privileged category; they have their own outfits to get themselves elected. The peasants and labour have a far more legitimate claim to reservation of seats than any other class or group, but they have no friends among the lawmakers.

The Elections Bill is a lengthy draft and we may have to revert to it.

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2017