Show of hands?

Published December 30, 2020

THE legal and political wrangling over the mode of voting in the upcoming Senate elections raises some uncomfortable questions. Prime Minister Imran Khan had been talking about replacing the secret ballot in the elections of the upper house with a show of hands. He was rationalising this change by arguing that the menace of corruption in secret balloting could be uprooted by a transparent mode of voting.

Last week, the federal cabinet decided to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the matter. President Arif Alvi was asked to be the conduit for this inquiry. According to a statement by the Press Information Department, “The president has sought the opinion of the apex court on the premier’s proposal to hold the elections using open ballot/show of hands.” Hearing of the presidential reference will begin next month.

However, something is amiss here. The prime minister and his party colleagues did not have a problem with a secret ballot in the Senate when their people were elected to the house in the past. They also did not object to the secret ballot when the vote of confidence against the Senate chairman — whom they supported — was defeated because some opposition members voted against their party position. They could do so because of the secret ballot. The PTI was a beneficiary. This newfound liking for a show of hands forces one to ask: why now? Is the PTI not confident of its numbers for the elections? Is it fearing desertions? Is it sensing its expected majority in the upper house could be dented due to the unpredictability of the secret ballot? These questions require answers from the PTI that may explain the peculiar haste on display and the unconventional route being taken to push this change through before the elections.

What makes this more worrisome is that the ruling party is opting for a legal solution to a purely parliamentary issue. If it really wants this change to happen, the preferred way is to take the opposition on board and allow for the matter to be debated as is the norm for issues that require to be voted on in the house. There are pros and cons of the open ballot mode of elections, and in this case, they need to be discussed in detail both in the committees and in the house before a vote takes place.

The PTI should abstain from sneaking it in through a legal back door. It would not pass the smell test. In any case, this change should be part of a larger set of electoral reforms that need to be undertaken before the next general elections. If such reforms do not have a buy-in from all relevant political stakeholders they lose the credibility that is required for them in order to make elections transparent and non-controversial. The ruling party should shun haste and choose prudence.

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2020

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