ISLAMABAD: Urging the government to desist from any hasty move to amend the Elections Act, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) on Tuesday proposed referendum on the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and list proportional representation system.
In a detailed statement released days after the promulgation of a controversial ordinance binding the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to use EVMs in the next general elections, Fafen said the haste with which the government was pushing for electoral reforms, including the introduction of electronic voting and biometric machines, was worrying.
“Notwithstanding the importance of technology in inculcating efficiency, transparency, and uniformity of the electoral process, the introduction of EVMs and biometrics is a significant shift. It should not be introduced without a more extended public and political discourse. An ordinance is undoubtedly not the way to take measures meant to strengthen democracy.
Asks govt not to amend Elections Act in haste, calls for public debate, political discourse on electoral reforms
“Only citizens should have the right to decide on matters that relate to their constitutional right to vote. For such issues of public importance, the framers of the Constitution had included the provision of a referendum,” Fafen believed.
The statement explained that the referendum process would allow all political parties to freely take up their positions on the use of technology with Pakistani citizens. Such a step would also give a much-needed sense of political empowerment to Pakistani citizens, it said, adding that each of them would then be part of shaping the framework of future elections in the country.
It also called for a broader public debate and political discourse on the much-needed electoral reforms.
The network said that unless structural and systemic issues compromising the integrity and credibility of the election processes and its outcomes were not addressed, democracy would continue to gasp for breath.
Instead of identifying solutions before an evidence-based diagnosis of maladies ailing elections and their outcomes, and as a result of democratic consolidation in Pakistan, Fafen urged the political parties to go back to the basics, asking them to work together towards establishing an election system that can guarantee the attainment of the constitutional preamble which says that the will of the people of Pakistan shall establish an order wherein the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people.
“Therefore, any debate must start with a detailed review of the election system in vogue in the country, which has become obsolete,” Fafen observed.
It said the First-Past-the-Post System (FPTP) practised in Pakistan since the general election (GE) 1970 did not translate all votes polled into any representation. It yields a parliament and a government that does not represent a majority. The governments so formed have been weak as they have never represented more than 17 per cent of the registered and 46pc of the polled votes.
The current government, it was pointed out, represented 31pc of the total votes polled, 16pc of the registered votes, and thus 8pc of the country’s population. This institutionalisation of minority governments has never allowed democratic institutions to strengthen and democratic values to flourish.
According to a historical analysis of election results, 53pc of all votes polled in the general election (GE) 2002 did not translate into any representation, 50pc in GE-2008, 52pc in GE-2013, and 57pc in GE-2018. As a result, the political parties got seats in the assemblies disproportionate to their share of votes. For example, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) bagged 2,604,086 votes in GE-2018 with 12 seats in the National Assembly, while Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan polled 2,194,978 votes without any seats in the assembly.
The vote per seat ratio of other political parties in GE-2018 also presents a compelling case for a more extensive debate on the change of the election system.
Alternative and more advanced representation systems such as the List Proportional Representation System may be considered to ensure that the electoral outcomes translate a maximum number of votes polled into representation, reflecting political diversity. As many as 89 countries worldwide now use variations of PR systems for their representational efficacy.
Another critical area is voters’ registration. Unless the voter registry is complete, there cannot be an election that may be considered entirely fair. As many as 12.41 million women continue to be disenfranchised despite an intense effort by the ECP to register them since December 2017. Since these women do not have computerised national identity cards, a legal prerequisite for voter registration, the onus falls on the government to take special measures to ensure that they are registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) as also required by the Elections Act, 2017. There may also be a few million eligible-aged men who are not registered as voters. Still, the actual scale of under-registration will only be established once the government notifies the age disaggregated results of the population census undertaken in 2017.
An effort towards reforming the election system will be incomplete if it did not address its inability to yield a representation of all economic classes, ethnicities, religious minorities, and sexes in the elected houses. Tangible measures are required to make the election system more inclusive, enabling it to transform the political, ethnic, and religious diversity in Pakistan into a strength rather than a source of division and fragmentation.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2021