Updated Jul 19, 2018 01:07pm

The problem is in the system, not democracy: why Pakistan needs proportional representation

Adnan Rasool

A week from elections, the mood in Pakistan seems sombre. Call it what you want, the elections are not whipping up the kind of excitement they did in 2013 or 2008.

This time around there are accusations, resentment and disdain for the whole process.

In such circumstances, one is faced with questions like, is this whole thing worth it? Why are we even doing this again if the same set of people will get elected again on different party platforms? What is the point of this? Why should I even vote?

To the last question, Sarah Khan makes a compelling argument about voting. For the rest of the questions and general disillusionment with democracy, I am putting forward a case for proportional representation.

In a federation like Pakistan, we are stuck with a parliamentary system even though majority of the governance is now with the provincial governments.

As I have explained in my earlier articles, the role of our elected officials and our expectations from them are at complete odds.

This creates a disillusionment with the system that most people cannot articulate and simply call the system broken or corrupt.

Now read: Busting the myth that all MPAs and MNAs get development funds

I am here to tell you that it is not that our system is broken or corrupt; we just have the wrong system in place.

What Pakistan needs is a proportional representation system, at least at the National Assembly level.

What would this entail?

In simplest terms, people will not vote for a candidate, they will only vote for a party. A party will produce a list of candidates that it wishes to send to the NA and based on the national vote share of each party, it will get that percentage of seats in the NA.

For instance, if the NA was just 200 seats, a party securing 25 percent of the national vote would get 50 seats in the parliament.

The party makes a list of 200 candidates based on priority and the top 50 get sent to the parliament based on the vote share.

The advantage of this is that the voices of even the smaller parties get heard.

There are limitations to this system. For instance, a party needs to secure at least five percent of the national vote to have representation in parliament. But even with that, it gives a wider representation to different ideas and beliefs in the country.

Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Norway and Denmark are just some of the countries that rely on the proportional representation system for elections.

In all these cases, parties come up with a candidate list specifically designed for the job of legislation.

However, in Pakistan we have more potential advantages than those enjoyed by the Europeans.

No more electables

The most significant advantage we can reap from the system of proportional representation would be getting rid of electables.

Because there is no longer constituency politics for the national level and there are not even the limited development funds at play anymore, political parties can talk policy and long-term planning to the electorate and put forth genuine experts and newer faces without the fear of being beaten out by electables.

Related: For a democratic Pakistan, more power needs to be given to local governments

This also helps get rid of the party-hoppers who simply keep moving parties and coming back into government.

For a country like Pakistan, where electables are by default assumed to be corrupt, this change could give an aura of change to the system that a small, yet loud segment of our society believes is the end all evil in Pakistan.

All in all, this could end up providing significantly better legislators for us all.

More diverse voices

Consider an issue every party deals with — losing a seat by 1,000 or 2,000 votes. Thousands of your supporters voted and yet you lost a seat. Does that mean that the voices of those thousands should be silenced?

Maybe not. If we do have the proportional representation system, then those votes do not go to waste.

Instead, they help give a political party a chance to send one more person from their list to the national assembly.

This would be extremely effective to get voices like the Awami Workers Party into parliament or other smaller, specialised regional parties.

This helps with the diversity of the legislative process for a federation like ours.

Serious policy making & party professionalisation

Because parties no longer need to deal with electables or having uneven development across the country, they can nominate candidates that can do real work they are supposed to do: legislate laws and work on policies for the long run.

Because parties would be more likely to nominate people with professional credentials as opposed to those who can wrangle up votes in a very specific geographic area, the parties would then have the chance to professionalise and build structures that could attract genuine technocrats and field experts into the fold.

What we can potentially have in Pakistan is an overall improvement in the kind of politics we are undertaking at the national level, rather than cribbing about electables being necessary to win and questioning each other’s faith in the process.

Dampening polarisation

Polarisation online and in mass media has been on the rise recently.

In an election cycle, we can see voters getting angry and practically hating those who do not fall in line with their views.

We have a minimised space for dissent and disagreement. But if our system did not pit us against one another on a constituency by constituency basis, and our arguments remained at the policy level, the chances for this kind of rabid polarisation to prevail will diminish.

Elections 101: What is delimitation and why does it matter?

If voting on the national level is based on proportion, everyone’s voice gets heard. We can have substantial discussions and, in most cases, will be forced to create coalition governments.

The overall state of our democracy could be stronger because we are not obsessed with constituency level politics any more.

I want to lay out this idea as we walk into another election on the first-past-the-post system.

This system has not delivered at the federal level and expecting it to deliver is dishonest about democracy and its potential in a place like Pakistan.

A proportional representation system with certain conditions, like a minimum required voting percentage to get entry into parliament could do better for us.

We need our voters to believe again in democracy and one way to do that is to operate on a system where everyone gets heard and everyone has a say.

Our system is not broken, it is just simply the wrong system.


Are you a researcher working on political reform? Share your insights with us at blog@dawn.com

Read Comments