THE Elections Act, 2017, passed by parliament and signed into law by the president of Pakistan in October 2017, has been rightly hailed as a major milestone in electoral reforms in Pakistan. Significant reforms have been introduced through the act such as providing greater administrative and financial autonomy to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and ensuring greater and more effective participation of women in the electoral process besides bringing eight election-related laws into the act.
This is all very good and must be acknowledged and appreciated but the Elections Act, 2017, has unfortunately also seen some major reversals in electoral reforms especially relating to the transparency of candidates’ credentials which are crucial to people making up their mind before voting.
There were some 19 declarations which a candidate for the National Assembly or provincial assemblies or the Senate was required to make in the nomination form. These declarations have been deleted from the form under the new law. The nomination forms were previously covered by the election rules which were framed and amended by the ECP.
But under the new law the nomination forms have been included in the Elections Act so only parliament can amend these forms.
The previous nomination form included a declaration on outstanding loans from any bank or financial institution etc in the name of a candidate, his/her spouse or any dependent but the declaration has been omitted in the new form.
So are the declarations on default in payment of government dues or utility charges, companies owned and foreign travel undertaken during the past three years. Declarations about some basic information such as educational qualifications and the occupation of the candidate have also been deleted from the nomination form.
The previous nomination form required candidates to declare under oath a list of criminal cases against them; this declaration is no longer required.
A basic requirement of a democratic system is transparency regarding those seeking public office.
Candidates were also required to submit the details of the income tax and agriculture income tax they paid during the past three years. No such declaration is required in the new nomination form.
They were supposed to submit declarations of the amount of money received from or paid to a political party which awarded the ticket to the candidate. These declarations have been omitted in the new nomination forms.
The previous nomination form also included a declaration about the Pakistani citizenship of the candidate and that he/she has neither acquired nor applied for the citizenship of a foreign state. This declaration is also missing in the new form.
A most important part of the nomination form has been the statement of assets and liabilities of the candidate, his/her spouse and dependents.
Although, thankfully, this statement is still required to be submitted, some significant modifications have been made in the format. Previously, a candidate was required to give the value of the net assets of the previous year, the current year and the increase/ decrease over the year.
The new nomination form requires that only the value of the assets for the current year be given. The statement no longer requires a candidate to submit such details of the immovable property as location, description, built-up area and present market value. Within the statement, a candidate was also required to provide the amount of personal expenditure which has been removed in the new form.
It needs to be emphasised that all the declarations by the candidates which were a part of the old nomination form and which have now been omitted are important for a voter to enable him or her to decide who to vote for.
We have large constituencies of an average 357,000 voters in each National Assembly constituency and it is impossible for voters to personally know the candidates. Declarations in the nomination forms are the best way to get authenticated information about the candidates.
Transparency regarding those seeking public office is one of the basic requirements for the democratic system to work satisfactorily. Any effort to curtail the level of transparency will compromise the basic principles of democracy.
Unfortunately, the deletion of these important declarations has done just that — compromised the fundamental principle of democracy by curtailing the transparency about the candidates running for public office.
It is somewhat surprising that such significant curtailment of transparency was allowed by parliament even while almost all political parties were represented in the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms and its subcommittee through their ablest legislators.
Five notes of reiteration or dissent were submitted by the members of the PCER on behalf of their respective political parties at the time of submission of the final report to parliament but none of these notes relates to the declarations deleted from the nomination form.
It is even more surprising that the national media and civil society were not able to detect such a serious reversal of the candidates’ transparency in time. There have been only a few vague and fleeting references to the deletion of the declarations in the media but no serious questions have been raised about this reversal.
The PCER and parliament had admitted their lapse on another modification in the affidavit accompanying the nomination form by quickly making a correction through the Election (Amendment) Act, 2017, after a protest movement developed to restore the original text relating to the finality of prophethood.
It became evident at that time that most of the legislators had either not noticed the change or failed to realise the gravity of the situation before the passage of the bill.
It is quite likely that the matter of deletion of these important declarations from the nomination form may also have escaped the attention of the legislators and the party leaders. Realising the significance of these declarations, it may not be asking for too much to restore these to the nomination form before the general election.
The writer is the president of Pildat.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2018