THE debate so far on the electoral reforms bill (which has been passed by the National Assembly and is yet to be passed by the Senate), instead of discussing the merits and demerits of the proposed reforms has become bogged down in legalities that some of the proposed reforms conflict with the Constitution. A crucial proposed reform is that Nadra, instead of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), should prepare the voter lists. This article critically evaluates the proposal.
Which of the two entities, Nadra or ECP, is technically better positioned to prepare the voter lists? Obviously, Nadra! All CNIC holders being eligible voters, Nadra can generate the list with a click using its CNIC database. The opposition would not let Nadra have the role. Reasons: first, Nadra is an executive arm of the government, therefore can be influenced by the political party in power; second, the Constitution empowers only the ECP to prepare the voter lists. However, the Constitution was framed in 1973 when CNICs and even Nadra did not exist and holding an identity card was not compulsory to be a voter. Times have changed. The fourth industrial revolution is underway, and nations that refuse to benefit from technology would stand doomed.
For the ECP, what is the primary task at hand for Election 2023? Register the eligible but as yet unregistered as voters. What is the magnitude of the task? The number of registered voters stands at 115 million as per the ECP’s annual report of 2020. Reportedly the number reached 119m by mid-June 2021. How many aged 18 and above are not yet registered as voters? Extrapolating from the population figure of 2017, Dr. Nayab of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics estimates that the population aged 18 and above now stands at 137m. Thus around 18m (137 minus 119) people eligible to vote are not registered as voters. Should we let them remain disenfranchised? If not, does the ECP enjoy the capacity and have a system in place to register these 18m as voters by 2023?
Does the ECP have the capacity to register 18m individuals as voters by 2023?
What is the present system of registration of voters? The particulars of all those who are issued a new CNIC whether on attaining the age of 18 or otherwise, are communicated by Nadra to the ECP. Such persons are automatically registered as voters by the Commission without requiring them to apply to become voters. Reportedly, since some years now, Nadra, at the time of issuance of CNIC, even records whether a person would like to vote from his ‘permanent’ or ‘present’ address. Thus, for the people issued CNICs for the first time in the recent past, there would be no difference between the voter lists produced by Nadra and the ECP; both would be automatically registering as voters all those individuals being issued a CNIC for the first time.
In the case of an adult who already possesses a CNIC (maybe since long) but is not registered as a voter, he/she has to apply to the ECP to become a voter. Such persons may not apply due to the effort or cost involved, in terms of time as well as money. Pure lethargy could be another reason. Again, Nadra can register such people as voters with a click, using its CNIC database. Why can’t the procedure which the ECP practises for registering fresh CNIC holders be adopted for everyone? The only hitch one can think of is that for people issued CNICs years ago, the ECP would not know their preferred address for voting — present or permanent? The solution could be to register all such people on their ‘present’ address. Nadra can publicise the act of registration and allow people to ask for a change in the voting address by a certain date.
Can we have something which satisfies both the government and the opposition? Yes. Let Nadra prepare and publish the preliminary voter lists. Objections to the list may be filed with the ECP. Any new voter proposed by the ECP should be added and issued a CNIC after required due diligence by Nadra, if the person does not hold one. The ECP and Nadra are already actively collaborating to induce people to obtain CNICs. The final list should be signed by both the chief election commissioner and chairperson Nadra. If the PTI, PML-N, and PPP consent, the legislature would have the numbers to amend the Constitution for involving Nadra in developing the voter lists.
However, registering around 18m new voters can disturb the political calculus of the parties based on biradari, clan, and dhara — all essential components of dynastic politics. The desire to hold safe ground, even if it fails to yield an absolute majority, could underlie the opposition to let Nadra prepare the voter lists. On the ECP’s part, the opposition to Nadra’s role only reflects the usual bureaucratic phenomena — the greater the functions, the greater the power, the prestige, and maybe the consequent benefits.
The writer is a researcher at PIDE.
Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2021