If democratic institutions are to be strengthened, failures, mistakes and poor decisions need to be identified.
The National Assembly’s decision to form a committee to investigate allegations of poll rigging in the July 25 general election is a welcome move. As with previous such probes and similar parliamentary committees, much will depend on the scope of the inquiry and whether the government and the opposition can find a way to conduct a meaningful one.
After all, no government would like to see its mandate undermined by evidence of electoral rigging, and arguably all oppositions would like to magnify malfeasance that may have occurred. Nevertheless, it is fairly clear that there are credible allegations of rigging that need to be addressed.
At a minimum, the failure or otherwise of the Results Transmission System needs to explained. While a reliance on technology is welcome, in the case of a general election, the technology used has to be virtually foolproof, and safeguards and back-up systems must be in place to ensure that there is no delay in the counting of votes and reporting of results. The events after polling closed on July 25 are unacceptable from a democratic standpoint and the country cannot afford a repeat of what at a minimum was gross mismanagement.
While a parliamentary inquiry can easily drift towards politicisation and showmanship, it is parliament that has the ultimate authority to amend the electoral framework — if it becomes clear that the system itself needs to be changed. Moreover, the 2018 poll was the first general election to be held after significant electoral reforms were approved by the previous parliament; a parliamentary audit of the electoral process was therefore already merited.
Thus far, the PTI has at least appeared willing to consider a serious inquiry into claims of electoral rigging, and if Prime Minister Imran Khan throws his weight behind the parliamentary inquiry, it ought to be possible for rapid progress to be made.
But much will depend on the conduct of the opposition. When the PTI was in opposition, it made very serious allegations of electoral fraud and manipulation having occurred in 2013, but failed to back up its claims with reasonable evidence. Now it is the PML-N primarily that is alleging fraud, though virtually all opposition parties have levelled similar charges. It is therefore incumbent on the PML-N to assemble evidence that can be reasonably expected in the circumstances.
Perhaps the inquiry should consider approaching independent and international poll monitors for their input too. Independent experts may be able to provide solutions to chronic electoral problems that the political class may not be willing to consider if presented by a particular party.
The next scheduled general election is five years away, but the work for improving on the poor record of 2018 should begin now.
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018