THE government’s proposal on Monday of extensive electoral reforms is a welcome announcement. Far too many elections, including last week’s NA-249 bypoll, have ended in accusations of manipulation and rigging. From ‘missing’ electoral staff to the hijacking of entire ballot boxes, even the most far-fetched of schemes somehow become possible during our election process.

But although Babar Awan’s specific proposals to the Elections Act 2017 are a step in the right direction, the history of strained relations between the government and opposition means that a constructive debate on this crucial issue will be an uphill task.

Here, the government must take the lead, not just in proposing amendments but also in demonstrating its commitment to parliamentary debates. Underpinning this exercise is trust. The opposition parties have little confidence in the government. Prime Minister Imran Khan on several occasions has talked of electoral reforms, but his party’s toxic relationship with the opposition has left little room for engagement on this, or any other, issue. He and his government must prove their commitment to reforms with a consistent debate in parliament, where the opposition feels it is being heard.

The latter, on its part, must not be quick to reject every proposal made by the government if it seeks a resolution to the problem. Ironically, the party, which has rejected the establishment’s role in elections and accused the PPP of winning with its help in the NA-249 poll, has called for army personnel to take custody of the ballots in Karachi. A comprehensive debate followed by consensus on electoral reform — an exercise that should categorically rule out any role for the establishment as the PPP chairman indicated at a press conference yesterday — is the only way to address the instability and chaos that are all too evident when polls are held.

Read: Electronic voting is no silver bullet

For far too long, our elections have been marred by the interference and influence of either the ruling party or the establishment. Pakistan is fortunate that its electoral system is linked to Nadra, which has several layers of identification for those registered with it. A rigging-proof system, which cannot be manipulated through technical delays, is possible if political stakeholders sit together to make it so. This unpleasant and dangerous trend of tainted elections must end, as it steals the right of the electorate to indicate their choice. Moreover, these episodes erode the public’s faith in the system and in democracy itself.

The events of the two recent NA bypolls in Daska and Karachi, and the Senate polls this year, are an example of the mayhem that will unfold if political stakeholders do not address electoral challenges before the next general election. Reforms eliminate the involvement of those who rig the ballot box and it is in the collective interest of the political parties to accept this. Failure to do so will be a loss for everyone.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2021

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