BETTER late than never and better several improvements than none — the Electoral Reforms Bill, 2017, approved by the National Assembly this week is a significant step in the right direction, but it should not be seen as the end of the road to free and fair elections. While the bill has rightly been crafted with a long-term outlook, an expeditious passage of the bill through the Senate will address at least two short-term controversies: allowing the Election Commission of Pakistan to implement the revamped electoral laws ahead of the next general election and perhaps creating a time frame in which constituencies can be demarcated on the basis of the latest national census. The first responsibility should be to hold a general election on the basis of the most up-to-date data available on the electorate. Two other significant changes going forward are the unification of eight different electoral laws — which added unnecessary layers of confusion for candidates — and the direction to the ECP to finalise an election manual six months ahead of a general election, giving all sides involved in holding and contesting elections much-needed certainty about the process.
The push to ensure greater female participation in elections is also a highly laudable move. It remains to be seen how the specific rules designed to prevent women from casting their vote freely in elections will work in practice — regressive elements in society can be surprisingly adept in circumventing rules designed to limit their influence — but at least the right message has been sent. A healthy democracy must necessarily have electoral participation from all eligible elements of society and greater participation by women in the democratic process is surely to the benefit of a progressive society. With a significant number of minor and major changes to the electoral process envisaged, the full impact of the bill will take some time to assess. But there are already some shortcomings that ought to be addressed eventually.
Two of the PTI’s major demands, voting rights for overseas Pakistanis and electronic balloting, have gone unmet. That may have less to do with the political rivalry between the PML-N and PTI and, more likely, be a result of, for now, administrative operational problems. But the demands should eventually be met because it would be good politics and create a more comprehensive, transparent electoral process. Campaign finance reform is another area that has been effectively ignored, with grossly unrealistic spending limits being marginally increased and no thought given to how to create a more level playing field for all candidates. Finally, there is the issue that hangs fire: constitutional reform of the qualification and disqualification criteria for candidates and parliamentarians. Reform is necessary, but the government must not make it about a single individual. Careful thought and wide-ranging consultation will be required.
Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2017