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The politics of ID cards

June 17, 2012

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THE identity card was first introduced in the electoral system by president Ghulam Ishaq Khan through an ordinance issued a month before the landmark 1988 elections.

The president was adamant that no elector should be issued a ballot paper unless an identity card was presented, and to reaffirm this, he promulgated a more clearly worded ordinance some 10 days before the polling. The decision was challenged in the Lahore High Court which ruled against it, only to be turned over by the Supreme Court a day before the elections.It is now no secret that back then, the military establishment was bent on blocking the PPP’s road to power. Its ingenuity made a lethal weapon out of a benign card.

Consider the fact that 10 years after these elections, the Population Census Organisation reported that half of the country’s adult women and a third of its men did not possess an identity card.

A conservative backward projection shows that back in 1988, most did not have one — doubtless the poor, the marginalised and the rural, a good part of whom happened to be PPP supporters. The president converted the card from an acknowledgment of citizenship into a decree of disenfranchisement.

On the ground, however, polling staff flouted this rule as they do with many others. Electoral rolls did not include the identity card number and many cards did not bear pictures of their holders. There was thus no practical way to ascertain the eligibility of a voter during the polling through the card and cross-check afterwards whether a card had actually been produced or not.

On the other hand, the condition created an opportunity for corruption as the polling staff could allow or disallow people at their will.

Over the years, freewheeling political bargainers at the level of the local communities also entered the fray and invented creative ways to use the card in their dealings with election candidates.

For example, if a community leader has to establish his vote’s worth before a candidate interested in buying votes, he has to match his claim with a show of cards. The greater the number of cards, the stronger his position.

In other cases, where a candidate is wary of a particular community’s allegiance to his opponents, he can announce a price for people to hand over their identity cards so that they are barred from voting. The more perceptive feudal lords deal with these potential ‘enemies’ by seeing to it that the community or the village does not secure identity cards, at least not all of them.

There is no evidence that the card’s debut at polling stations contributed in any way to making Pakistan’s electoral system more efficient or inclusive.

Yet the computerised card has innumerable supporters. Its high-tech appeal, built on association with modern terms such as database, machine-readable, real-time search and so on makes its defence strong.

But all this boils down to little to no benefit when confronted with the ground realities of this underdeveloped society. Not all countries have identity card systems but they do hold more credible elections than we do.

The card’s gloss is nevertheless effective in deflecting criticism of administrative inefficiencies. The Election Commission of Pakistan’s passion for the card is growing in inverse proportion to its capacity to deliver at the grass-roots level.

The ECP has been following the old strategy for its house-to-house voter-listing campaigns. The field-based voter registration drive of 2007 counted 52 million voters. That was far lower than the estimated adult population at the time and exposed the limits of the ECP’s outreach.

The subsequent Supreme Court intervention resulted in raising the total number of voters to a ‘respectable figure’ of 80 million, albeit in a hasty and dubious manner. Last year, the ECP set out to verify this list and the results were disastrous. Its outreach shrank further as it could physically verify only 44 million (of 81 million) voters.

Instead of analysing the shortcomings of its ground campaigns and rectifying them, the commission turned to the magic wand of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra). It has taken the identity cards that are part of Nadra database but not on its verified lists and simply added them to the final rolls.

The ECP terms this process ‘augmentation through Nadra’ and 37 million of the 81 million voters in the current rolls have been added through this process.

This could not have been legal but the parliament enacted the Election Laws (Amendment) Act in May 2011 with the “holding of a Nadra-issued identity” card as a voting pre-qualification. The card has not proved to be the panacea.

Identity cards are valid for a decade or even longer and people move places quite frequently. Nadra does not continuously track every cardholder to keep his/her place of residence updated. Moreover, while documenting residential addresses, Nadra does not follow a scheme that the Commission could pursue to ascertain which electoral constituency a particular cardholder lives in.

Nadra records thus cannot tell which person is living in what constituency at a particular time. This renders the entire exercise of ‘augmentation through Nadra’ ill-conceived.

However, the process helps the ECP drag the total number of voters up to an ‘acceptable’ figure, with the shiny card shielding it from criticism on account of the errors on the lists.

If face-saving is all that the commission intended to achieve, that is well within reach. But if the objective was delivering credible election rolls, that remains a distant dream.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group with a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

tahir.mehdi@lokpunjab.org