M Ali Siddiqi looks at the
vagaries of Pakistani electoral practices
The country is witnessing growing demands for fresh national Need to revisit the electoral system amidst relentless political turmoil. The political instability has been exacerbated by the intensity of economic downturn experienced by the country. The socio-political polarisation has reached a very high level pitching formidable percentage of the segments of population against each other that are unwilling to concede an inch and are not prepared to sit together and work out a mutually satisfactory solution to the issues they disagree with. In this poisonous scenario it is simultaneously complained that the electoral system practiced in Pakistan has become highly controversial as it is roundly branded as full of malpractices. Due to the increasingly bad reputation of the electoral system, it has been under severe criticism since many years. In recent past the superior judiciary has been repeatedly approached for arbitration in issues arising out of contentious electoral results and other related electoral matters.
The fragility of Pakistan’s democracy is unique even in nascent democracies. It is due to an invisible arbitrary force that holds overriding clout in political domain and, to obtain desired results, massively intervenes in electoral process. The intervention is aggravated by the fact that the perception and goals of this arbitrary force are in direct opposition to democratic ideals and practice. Therefore, contrary to electoral reform in established democracies where people value traditional practices associated with electoral process, Pakistan requires a real and complete break with the past. It is easier said than done but any reform content is required to make it clear that any interference, overt or covert, in an election by anyone from outside the designated electoral machinery will be done under pain of punishment. This aspect should be widely publicised and independent watchdogs, local and international, should be exhorted to look into this aspect specifically. It should become a mandatory part of proposed electoral reform package.
While considering electoral reform it should be kept in view that adherence to winner-take-all Westminster electoral practice complicates electoral process in Pakistan. This method shuts out the loser from any share in state’s resources even if the winner gets minimum majority. Such radical loss for half a decade plays havoc in an agrarian society like Pakistan where influence of familial connection runs supreme. The impact of such win-lose situation is widespread because it is estimated that almost 45% electoral representation is vested in political families.
Although similar connections in political arena are clearly found in industrialised democracies but their impact there is marginalised by intense pluralism ensuring dispersal of equitable power to all stake holders. The only relief granted in this respect could be reduction in assembly tenure from 5 to 4 years. Five year’s tenure is rather long in the current fast moving political environment. The British reduced tenure of Parliament from 7 years to 5 in 1911 and are now debating it to make it 4 years fixed tenure. It must be noted also that five 5 years is otherwise the maximum tenure as it is observed that mostly the parliaments running for five years are symptomatic of falling government popularity pushing it to go the full length, therefore, reduction in legislature’s tenures may not adversely affect representative prowess but may increase performance level.
In this context it must also be kept in view that the electoral process is the mechanism through which peaceful and consensual transfer of political power takes place in a democratic polity. Political parties, the vehicles of democratic political power, are driven to governance through an election mechanism. As with all exercises associated with power the electoral process is also not free from manipulation. The predominantly subjective nature of electoral process further complicates the matter. The intense pull of this subject has resulted in a plethora of electoral reform proposals forwarded by countless organisations, specialists, commentators and wide array of public. Since this is a public welfare measure affecting all and sundry therefore a vast input from a cross section of citizenry should always be encouraged along with wide publicity accorded to this exercise.
Before proceeding further it may be mentioned that an electoral system is the only process that determines allocation of parliamentary seats commensurate with voting strength of a party. The three systems generally in vogue are Plurality system, Majority system and Proportional representation. In Majority system the electoral process moves forward once candidates secure more than fifty per cent vote to qualify in more than one ballot. Proportional Representation allocates seats equivalent to number of votes secured. Although its applicability is fraught with calculating difficulties yet it is employed with certain variations in many countries on different levels of public representation as such countries have worked out its intricacies well.
It is imperative to deliberate upon genetic composition, underlying assumptions, inherent limitations and supple variations of electoral reforms in Pakistan so that they become all encompassing and considered legitimate by citizenry. They should be aimed to assist an institutionalised democratic system by consolidating the right to rule. More importantly, the electoral process should be considered a continuous national exercise irrespective of the fact that its occurrence is periodic. One of its essential aims should be to improve quality and equality of representation. It should also address manageability of party system since it could not solely be done through legislative measures construed widely to favour political class only. The electoral reform should clearly draw lines between the roles played by executive and judicial sectors.
The emphasis placed on voter turnout should be watered down. Democratic polities often complain about voter apathy but accept it nevertheless because their long electoral experience has taught them that it is the expression of average General Will that counts and not its level. In Pakistan the urge for high voter turnout is directly proportional to rigging therefore it should be realistically assessed, even curbed, if possible. A push to achieve higher voter turnout distorts the electoral picture, exposes it to manipulation and increases election costs. It also attracts smaller groups to resort to malpractices just to prove their numerical influence.
Continuous delimitation of constituencies should be an essential ingredient of electoral reform package. A fixed time frame for delimitation exercise may be initiated keeping in view the relatively fast changing demographics and population shifts in the country. It is rather surprising to observe that Pakistan with a population of 230 million elects a representative house composed of only 272 directly elected members. Pakistan’s typical political matrix may be better served if the areas of representation are reduced increasing number of representatives. Dispersal of political mandate paves way for not only maximising representation but also accommodating disparate political ambitions.
Another contentious issue that directly affects the electoral process is the Election Commission of Pakistan that has so far been taken as a toothless organisation unable to ensure its writ despite having vast power in respect of conduction electoral exercise along with regulating the political parties and their membership. Though this institution is a statutory organisation yet it does not function to the satisfaction of all political stakeholders. It is therefore the need of the day to empower the ECP so that it conducts its business appropriately. TW