Open ballot?

May 22, 2020

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THE government has floated a proposal to end the secret ballot in the Senate elections in order to bring greater transparency to the electoral exercise for the upper house. These proposals are part of a larger set of electoral reforms that were placed before the federal cabinet recently. In a press conference, federal ministers Shafqat Mehmood and Azam Swati said efforts would be made to have a broad-based consensus on these electoral reforms so that constitutional changes could be made accordingly. The two ministers were part of a parliamentary committee formed to look into allegations of rigging in the 2018 elections. The opposition, however, did not take part in the proceedings, and ultimately, the committee focused on drawing up a list of electoral reforms.

The proposal to make the Senate election an open one makes sense in the context of manipulations that have happened in the past. These elections often attract accusations of horse-trading and in the past PTI also took action against some of its members from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who were found to have been involved in selling their votes in the Senate elections. Similarly, the election for the chairman of the Senate was also weighed down by controversy when a number of votes shifted across party lines. Due to secret balloting in these elections, various pressure groups have also been able to influence votes and outcomes. This lack of transparency continues to cast a dark shadow over the upper house. Therefore, an attempt to reform the process would be a timely one. However, there are some complications. The floor-crossing law bars any parliamentarian from voting against his party regardless of his or her opinion on the issue. This law was aimed at curbing horse-trading and therefore when it comes to open voting, the members are bound by party policy instead of voting with their conscience. This may have served a specific purpose at one time but it does curtail the independence of thought that is expected of a parliamentarian. If the secret ballot were to be done away with in the Senate without reviewing the floor-crossing restriction, the benefit may remain diluted.

It may be prudent for political parties to perhaps take another look at this floor-crossing law and decide whether it has outlived its utility. In the same vein, parties should also factor in the complications arising from an open vote in the Senate knowing the complicated format of the election. Voters have to list their preferences for each vacant position, and it is natural that this will create bitterness when shared publicly. What is needed is a greater effort by all political parties to forge a consensus on the Senate election reform as part of a larger set of reforms that have now become overdue in light of lessons learnt from recent elections.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2020