Pakistan News

The electoral mess

The electoral mess

THE verdicts of the election tribunals announced so far and the debates generated by them have amply demonstrated the need for review of the safeguards created for ensuring fair elections.

These safeguards are: use of indelible ink on voters’ fingers; affixation of voters’ thumbprint on the counterfoils of ballot papers; bar to canvassing and the presence of unauthorised persons inside polling stations; preparation of the statement of the vote count (Form 14) and ballot paper account (Form 15) by the presiding officers; and the Election Commission’s effective control on not only the polling staff and returning officers but also administrative and security services that have anything to do with the electoral process.

There is a near consensus in the country that these safeguards have not yielded the desired results. Probably they are designed for polling officials and a public at a higher level of intellectual development than what Pakistan at present exhibits. Let us take them one by one.

In 2013 complaints were received that indelible ink was not being used at a large number of polling stations. At some places the polling staff said they had not received indelible ink and that they had to buy ordinary ink from the market. There is no evidence that these complaints were conveyed to the ECP and remedial measures adopted during the polling.

Much reliance was placed on the possibility of verifying authentic voting from the voters’ thumbprints on the counterfoils of ballot papers. Two problems arose. It was not possible to guarantee that Nadra had absolutely correct prints of all voters’ thumb marks or that the presiding officers were able to take proper thumb marks at the time of polling. This resulted in difficulties in matching the marks on ballot papers with the Nadra record. In other words, the scheme required efficient making of thumb impressions at both ends, something that could not be taken for granted.

Further, the high cost of verifying the thumbprints by referring to the Nadra record meant that only the very rich could afford the cost of ballot verification. The impossibility of using this verification on a large scale exposed the inadequacy of the safeguard.

Complaints of lack of discipline at polling stations in 2013 were a legion. Canvassing was done within the premises of polling stations and candidates’ henchmen, often armed, enjoyed freedom of the polling station at many places, especially in the rural areas.

It has been proved more than once that many presiding officers did not fill up Form 14 (statement of vote count) and Form 15 (ballot account) and bags in many cases were not properly sealed or stored.

All these problems were aggravated because the Election Commission had no control over the poll staff, from returning officers to the security personnel. The question is whether the lack of ECP’s control over what was happening at polling stations was due to its failure to exercise is authority or whether there was no possibility of monitoring the conduct of the poll staff, especially the returning officers.

Theoretically, once a general election is called, the Election Commission acquires extraordinary powers to oblige all branches of administration to help it hold free and fair elections. Experience has shown that the administration neither heeds the bar to postings and transfers of public servants nor is it possible for the ECP to supervise the conduct of the polling staff.

Traditionally, the election authorities have depended on judicial officers to manage the elections as they are supposed to be free from political biases and capable of withstanding pressures from powerful candidates and executive authorities. These assumptions have come under serious challenge. Pakistani society is said to have been polarised to an extent that no public functionary can be expected to be completely non-partisan. That is why the EU observer mission in its report on 2013 election suggested that the ECP must have its own duly trained staffers as returning officers.

The main problem with the safeguards tried hitherto is that due attention is not paid to ways of fighting the culture of electoral manipulation. Given the slightest possibility, most of the candidates, if not all, have been seen as keen to manipulate the polling process in their favour. All remedial measures have centred on laying down penalties for unfair practices and on efforts to expedite the disposal of election petitions. How far the latter strategy has worked can be judged from the fact that many election petitions related to the 2013 general election are undecided more than two and a half years later.

While there is much that the ECP is answerable for, its complaint that its proposals for changes in the relevant laws made before the 2013 election did not receive due respect from the political authority cannot be summarily rejected. Some of these issues are now being discussed in the parliamentary committee on electoral reform.

Whatever one’s views on the competence and impartiality of the Election Commission of Pakistan the continuance of the challenge to the fairness of the 2013 election is bound to affect the system of governance and the political discourse. What is happening now is that if the findings of the judicial commission offer the government some comfort the unseating of the National Assembly speaker revives Imran Khan’s faith in dharna. Endless rounds of such contest are not good for the health of the democratic system.

The government has two options: to go on living from one verdict on the 2013 polls to another or resolve the contentious issues by completing the process of electoral reform within six months or so and calling for a fresh general election one year before it is due.

The second choice is unlikely to appeal to lovers of legalistic semantics but those who accept democracy as a system of give and take might not fail to see its merits.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2015

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