THE five-member Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is finally complete after a painful and protracted process of consultation between the government and the opposition to fill three vacancies including that of the chief election commissioner. The two provincial vacancies had remained unfilled for a full year because the prime minister and the opposition could not agree on the names of the members. These newly inducted members, along with two others to be inducted next year, will, in all probability, be responsible for the holding of the next general election scheduled for 2023. Before that, the commission would also be required to hold local government elections in the four provinces, Islamabad Capital Territory and the cantonments.
Besides the conduct of elections, the new ECP will face numerous other challenges which it would not be successfully able to meet without the support of the people and the state. The foremost is that of credibility which is becoming more intense with every election. Each of the past 11 general elections has been confronted with a peculiar set of issues. But the widespread rigging of the 1977 poll, the involvement of some state intelligence agencies in creating and supporting certain electoral alliances in 1988 and 1990 elections, the PTI’s 126-day dharna against the alleged (later disproved by a judicial commission) rigging in the 2013 general election, and lately Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s ‘Azadi march’ against alleged rigging in the 2018 general poll have seriously dented the credibility of and public trust in the electoral system.
Despite some improvement in the last two general elections, the low average voter turnout in Pakistan (46 per cent) compared to that in India (60pc) and Bangladesh (64pc) is generally attributed to weak public trust in the credibility of our electoral system and, more specifically, the ECP. Without restoring the credibility of electoral system and the ECP, overall democratic governance in the country will greatly suffer. The ECP needs to work very hard to analyse the root cause of this weak public trust and then address those causes in a systematic manner. Although pre-poll manipulations constitute the latest trend in influencing the electoral outcome, controlling these may not fall within the purview of the ECP. The challenge for the commission, however, is to protect the integrity of the election from pre-poll assaults.
Another reason for low credibility is the inability to effectively monitor and control political finance in the country. For example, when people see election spending way beyond the ceiling set by the law but the ECP is unable to take action, the credibility of the electoral process and the commission suffers in their eyes. Election expenses, contributions to political parties and scrutiny of statements of assets and liabilities submitted by legislators are some critical aspects of political finance. The capacity of the ECP to monitor and control political finance in the country needs major improvements. The ECP established a political finance wing some time back but both the quality and quantity of its staffing needs urgent attention. Most effective checks on excessive spending by candidates are possible through effective monitoring of the election campaign at the constituency level, as India has successfully done over the past elections. The ECP had started deploying its constituency monitors but the new commission needs to improve the system in light of the lessons learnt.
Without restoring the credibility of the electoral system democratic governance will suffer.
The ECP staff needs augmentation both in terms of quantity and quality. The 18th Amendment added local government elections to the responsibilities of the ECP but this additional duty did not come with the required enhancement of human resources. The ECP should not only be given additional staff, it should also review its rules to enhance the quality and capacity of the existing staff. Continuous training of its staff is a must and the Elections Training Academy established within the ECP should be put to intensive use all year round for this purpose.
Pakistan may be lucky to have devised a bipartisan system of appointing members of the ECP but this has placed an additional burden on the shoulders of the members. Each commissioner is identified, unjustly, with the party that proposed his or her name. Once selected, the commissioners are serving a national cause and not partisan interests. Parties should refrain from commenting on individual commissioners, and both media and civil society should support the ECP in projecting its independence and impartiality.
Establishing a relationship of trust with political parties has remained an elusive goal over the years. Now that the commission is headed by a former senior civil servant, it may be easier to engage political parties in meaningful and regular consultation without yielding on principles.
The media is another important stakeholder which the ECP should effectively engage with. Regular media briefings by a senior and articulate ECP official should be considered especially during the election season. Many media persons, especially the younger ones, may not be aware of the technicalities of the electoral system, and it may not be a bad idea for the ECP to arrange training programmes for them. The use of social media does bring additional challenges but the ECP should seriously consider whether it can do without it in this day and age.
New technologies are emerging and electoral systems can’t stay aloof. The results transmission system, or RTS, proved to be a disaster during the last election, and the ECP should not only push for completing the pending inquiry on the failure, it should also work from this point on to make the system foolproof before the next election. Making the voting procedure for overseas Pakistanis trustworthy by using technology is another challenge before the commission. The jury is still out on the use of electronic voting machines but the ECP should continue testing prototypes to decide on their use.
Some celebrated cases are pending before the ECP whose real test of independence and assertiveness will come when it decides on these, including those of foreign funding involving some of our largest political parties.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2020