Electoral reforms – put the last first

Election expert questions the motivations behind the new desire for political parties to form another parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, given they had passed the Elections Act 2017, which had been approved after extensive consultations across the board, and the committee had met over 70 times beforehand. However, he enumerates many potential issues still remaining and proposes his recommendations on how these can be resolved.


Raja Pervez Ashraf – Speaker Pakistan’s National Assembly, reportedly has initiated a process to form a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms. In this regard, he has written a letter to all parliamentary parties, including Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, to nominate members to the committee. The stated purpose of the committee’s formation is “to evaluate shortcomings of the elections and make recommendations for Electoral Reforms to ensure that elections are held in a free, fair and transparent manner.”

It is worth noting here that five years ago, in August 2017, the National Assembly passed the Elections Bill 2017. Before its passage of the bill in August 2017, the Parliamentary Committee on Election Reforms met 70 times over two years. The general election in 2018 was held under the new law.

The new law was a unified version of the earlier nine election laws. It also enhanced the powers of the Election Commission by reducing its dependence on government and parliament for making rules, budget, and creating positions. The new law also paved the way to use technology for polling, such as EVM (section 103) and I-voting for overseas citizens of Pakistan (section 94). The Election Commission incorporated the use of technologies in its Strategic Plan 2019-23. In October 2018, the Supreme Court too ordered the Commission to plan for overseas Pakistanis to cast votes through I-voting in the forthcoming by-elections.

Proverbially the test of the pudding is in the eating; the merit of the Elections Act or reforms is in the conduct of elections. Let’s start from scratch as; in this case, the cook already knows the pudding is not worth eating. This means the electoral reforms introduced in 2017 have failed to serve the [narrow] objectives of some of the elites. Some of them had already started uttering their opinion.

By the end of 2020, severe differences surfaced between the PTI government and the opposition parties on the use of technology, which has become intense since the overthrow of the PTI government. The new ruling coalition in general and Peoples Party, in particular, appears to be more serious in reversing the use of technology, while PTI wants strict implementation of the elections law.

The most intriguing lines of the Speaker’s letter are this – “to evaluate shortcomings of the elections and make recommendations for Electoral Reforms to ensure that elections are held in a free, fair and transparent manner.” This article, therefore, intends to enlist the shortcomings of the electoral system, and then each deficiency will be examined on merit. But let’s first define the shortcoming – ‘a fault or failure to meet a certain standard, typically in a person’s character, a plan, or a system.’ But apart from shortcomings, numerous apparent malpractices are often committed by those supposed to be flag bearers of good behavior.

Read more: Overseas Pakistanis: Hail, the new Kingmakers

Will the Speaker take the real stakeholders on board? I doubt it. Consider this. Pakistan’s constitution believes in “the will of the people of Pakistan to establish an order” and “the State shall exercise its powers and authority through the people’s chosen representatives.” Everyone knows that the chosen representatives often never bother to involve the real stakeholders, i.e., the citizens, while chosen ones negotiate and bargain for any amendment to our constitution or law. Just recall the 18th Constitutional Amendment and the Elections Act 2017.

The will of the people is expressed through political parties, civil society (media of all kinds), social movements and think-tanks, etc. May I ask the Speaker what framework and mechanism he will set up to involve the citizens, and could he guarantee that citizens’ voices will be given any value? I doubt it. Cynicism apart, let’s briefly state the structural inequalities that largely determine the behavior of politicians and voters and the outcome of every election.

Structural barriers: Multiple inequalities (socio-economic and cultural) turn into multiple vulnerabilities. For instance, a large majority of women would vote under the strict orders of their male family members, and most members of communities in rural and poor localities of urban areas tend to vote according to orders of local factional leaders. Defiance often causes reprisal.

Since most political dynasties are responsible for perpetuating these structural inequalities for their benefit, I don’t expect anything positive from the current dispensation of the parliament. However, it is imperative to state the definition of a free election here. A free election is when every voter casts their vote with free will. Considering this definition, no election in Pakistan was and will be free because free will is either coerced or bought.

Moreover, since almost every polling official is either appointed or posted or promoted during their career by some elected officials, they face pressure or obligation to return the favor. This is not a shortcoming; it is an inherent disability and can’t be treated as long as the existing structure persists. Therefore, the quality of our democracy is highly likely to be proportionate to the quality of politics. The ongoing crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of our state structure and the bankruptcy of our corrupt oligarchs. If they refuse to reform themselves, others will. The path to reform is getting clearer with each passing day as polarization is deepening fast.

Read more: Inequality in the quality of elections and governance

Shortcomings and recommendations: In light of the above-stated definition and discussion, I would like to recommend the following proposals:

Adopt a transparent method to select CEC and members of the Commission and caretaker governments: For many years, we have been experiencing severe deadlock when the time comes to appoint CEC, members of the Commission, and caretaker setup. As a result, compromises are made, which severely damage the people’s trust in politicians and create doubts about the conduct of elections.

Recommendation: The nomination process should start at least six months before the expiry of the incumbent CEC and members. The CVs of the proposed persons must be made public, and the minutes of the meetings held in this regard must also be made public. The same process should be adopted for setting up the caretaker government. This could be done by amending Article 213 of the Constitution.

Minimize human involvement in polling, counting, and result preparation: There are about 27 steps from checking the identity of a voter to the announcement of election results. As humans perform each step, it could be manipulated—no wonder the story of Pakistan’s election is littered with doubts. For instance, according to PATTAN’s analysis of recent KP local elections, the following faults were identified in the Form XXI (consolidated results): incomplete forms, missing polled votes of losers, counting errors, variations within different categories of seats, incomplete information of ROs and wrong result titles.

Moreover, on 60 percent of the examined forms, the margin of victory was found to be less than the rejected ballots, and the percentage jumps to 73 percent in the case of seats of chairmen. This phenomenon has also been rising in general elections since the 1990s. For instance, in the general election of 1993, the percentage of rejected ballots was just 1.33 percent of the polled votes.

By 2013, it jumped to 3.2 percent or 1.5 million ballots. The rejected ballots slightly dropped to 3.1 percent (1.6 million) in 2018. Provincial variations are worth understanding the dynamics of rejected ballots. For instance, the highest number of overall rejected ballots count was found in Balochistan (5.66 percent of the total votes polled), Sindh had 3.87 percent, while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had 3.35 percent in the general election 2018. Punjab had the lowest (2.67 percent).

There appears to be a close relationship between rejected ballots and victory in 170 constituencies (50 NA and 120 PAs) in the general election of 2018. In the 2013 elections, only 35 constituencies suffered from this malaise.

First Past the Post electoral system

How does it work? Let’s first understand the basic principle of Pakistan’s electoral system. Ours is First-Past-The-Post system. A candidate can win or lose even by one vote. In the general election of 2018, about eight dozen candidates had less than 5,000, and four dozen had less than 3,000 margins of victory. Simply, if you are a super-rich candidate and you have no scruples, you just need to bribe some polling staff to tamper with a few ballots in a few polling stations.

Sadly, there is no dearth of such politicians. One of the most common methods used by polling staff is not to sign the counterfoils or backside of ballot papers. Another common tool for spoiling ballots of the rival candidate is to make some extra marks on the ballot papers. A candidate could also ask the presiding Officers to stuff ballot boxes with extra ballots.

Analyses of election data of previous general elections also reveal numerous errors in result preparations too. For Instance, on average, in more than one-quarter of Form 45 and Form 46, inconsistencies were found. And these errors could have a material impact on results.

Why use EVM? The use of EVM is most likely to eliminate all the above-mentioned rigging practices as EVM will end human involvement at every step of the polling, counting, and result in preparation. As stated above, polling authorities commit numerous errors and irregularities too due to lack of diligence and training, or intentionally, the EVM will help produce error-free counting and results.

Read more: Stop electoral discrimination against overseas Pakistanis!

And this seems to be the main reason that some parties have taken the U-turn on the use of EVM. Many politicians and people appear to oppose the use of EVM based on one factor – why are some of the most advanced countries not using EVM? My simple answer is their electoral systems don’t suffer from the malaise that we have.

But the real question is why do the ruling coalition/elite is bent on reversing the law that they had passed just five years ago? About 100 countries have given the right to their overseas citizens to take part in polling from afar. Some use postal ballots; others allow fax machines and the internet. Most South Asian countries are in the process of adopting some form of technology for their overseas citizens.

According to some overseas Pakistani activists, out of 272 national assembly constituencies, the overseas vote may have a material impact on 94 seats. One study commissioned by a media group concluded that overseas voters could swing 40 hotly contested NA seats in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Dera Ghazi Khan, Faisalabad, and Sialkot. I need not say more on this. Readers could draw their own conclusions.

But those who intend to disenfranchise overseas Pakistanis from voting must know that Article 25 of our constitution guarantees equality to citizens and grants all adult citizens (whether they live in or outside of the country) the fundamental right to vote. The state must not disenfranchise the rights of its nine million citizens just because they reside abroad and have been remitting billions of dollars each year to our economy.

Isn’t it strange that the elites who had held 70 meetings over two years period to develop the Elections Bill passed in 2017, now have no shame in reversing it when they realize that its implementation will have a material impact on their seats? For how long few dozen elite dynasties will continue making 230 million people fool? The rage is building up. Feel it.

There can’t be a more perfect example than this to know why politics is considered a science. One lone factor that has determined the politics of EVM and I-voting is – who will benefit more from its use? Since PTI appears to be more popular amongst overseas Pakistanis, it wants to translate that popularity into a vote bank by providing overseas Pakistanis the facility of I-voting. On the other hand, for the same reason, the ruling coalition wanted to deprive PTI of this advantage.

Similarly, it is equally important to understand why the parties of the ruling coalition have been opposing the use of EVM? Simply because it is highly likely to eliminate the human interface at 25 steps of polling, counting, and result preparation. Hence, it will incapacitate so-called electable and habitual fixers of their skills of rigging and corrupt practices.

Ills of the first-past-the-post electoral system in Pakistan have failed to provide political stability and social development because winning candidates/parties never had the majority of the polled and registered votes. In other words, they always had a narrow base, which caused a perpetual vacuum.

For instance, no ruling party ever had more than 9% of the population and 17% of the registered voters in any recent election. Moreover, no ruling party has had more than 32% of the polled votes since 2002. In other words, the opposition parties had more than two-thirds of the polled votes. See Table 1. It is highly important to resolve this stark contradiction should we want to deter external interference in civilian matters and want to have stability.

Recommendation: Many countries have practiced a 50 percent plus benchmark for winning candidates. Pakistan should develop and introduce a similar tool.

Extend anti-monopoly and anti-trust laws to the political arena: Pakistan’s constitution guarantees an end to all forms of exploitation (Article 3) and aims to end the control of a few families over means of production and wealth. It also strives to have social justice (Article 38).

According to some recent studies, 33 dynasties have total control over Pakistan’s corporate sector. Our legislative bodies are not different. About 200 families control more than two-thirds of our parliament and provincial assemblies, while every major party is run like a family enterprise.

I can’t ignore mentioning father and son who had recently taken over the reign of Pakistan and Punjab through an allegedly dubious process that, in the opinion of many, appears to have been facilitated by higher courts. My recommendation is to extend anti-monopoly laws to elections. Having immediate family members simultaneously in parliament and assemblies is a naked example of a conflict of interest. This must come to an end.

Read more: The electoral system of Pakistan needs a complete overhaul

Democratize political parties: Chapter XI of the Elections Act 2017 deals with political parties. Section 208 orders political parties to hold party elections every five years. Section 206 states, “A political party shall select candidates for elective offices, including members of parliament and provincial assemblies, through a transparent and democratic procedure.”

Interestingly though most parties have never issued tickets to all their election candidates in a democratic way and hold internal elections regularly, the Election Commission seems to have conveniently ignored the implementation of these sections. Under section 215(5) of the Act, the Commission has powers to deny election symbols to a party that has failed to comply with the law.

Recommendation: The ECP should establish a separate unit to monitor internal elections of parties and the issuance of tickets to candidates. Moreover, election observer groups and media houses should also be allowed to observe party elections in light of the Elections Act Section XI. The Unit should be empowered [not] to issue a certificate to parties and publicize its monitoring reports.

The practice of contesting elections from multiple seats simultaneously has become a curse. Article 223(2) states ‘nothing shall prevent a person from being a candidate for two or more seats simultaneously, but if he is elected to more than one seat, he shall resign all but one of his seats.’ Section 61 of the Elections Act provides yet another benefit to such candidates by allowing them to deposit a nomination fee just for one seat.

As a result, after every general election, 40 bye-elections are held on average because some candidates have won from more than one seat. On average, nearly PKR 90 million is spent on bye-elections held due to vacation. Contesting elections from multiple seats doesn’t exist anywhere in the world in this form. This has been causing huge financial loss to our exchequer.

It also damages politicians’ reputation and trust of the returned candidates as they promise to electorates of every constituency to retain the seat from where they contest.

Recommendation: As a good practice, no candidates should be allowed to contest from multiple seats simultaneously. Amend article 223(2). A fallback position could be – anyone who contests election from multiple constituencies; he should be made to pay in advance all the expenses of all the bye-elections held due to his resignation.

Democratize assemblies: Nearly 40 percent of our parliament and 22 percent of provincial assemblies are unelected members. The end of the indirect method of election will help deepen the people’s trust in the system and democracy. It will also diminish the control of party leaders, and sycophancy as directly elected officials are accountable to their constituents, too, while indirectly elected don’t. This dynamic will bring some balance.

Recommendation: All reserved seats must be filled through direct elections, including in the Senate. Amend all the relevant laws, including Article 51 (d) and (e) of the Constitution and Section 104 of the Elections Act 2017.

Enhance women’s participation: All over the world, including Pakistan, turnout is calculated based on total registered voters. However, women’s turnout in the lowest female turnout seats is calculated based on the total polled votes. It is wrong as it could show a higher turnout of women and save the ECP from holding repolling.

Suppose 175,000 women and 250,000 men are registered as voters in constituency A. In an election, 15,000 women and 135,000 men cast their votes. This means 8.6 percent of women & 54 percent of men polled the votes. If you use the method that the current law subscribes, then female turnout will jump to 10 percent, which is wrong and maybe considered cheating. In the Hangu NA33 by-election held in April 2022, only six percent of registered females exercised their right, but their share in the polled votes jumped to 20 percent due to flawed formula.

Recommendation: The concept of a multimember constituency is being practiced in many countries. Also, in KP and Punjab local government systems, the whole village and neighborhood are considered multiple-member constituencies; if this can be practiced at the local level, why it should not be implemented in national and provincial elections.

Read more: What is reality to rigging allegations for July 25, 2018 General Elections?

Increase quota of minorities: Since 1988, the seats of national and provincial assemblies have been increased many times. For instance, in 1988, out of 237 total seats of the national assembly, ten were reserved for minorities. By 2002, the total seats increased to 342, but the quota of minorities remained the same.

Recommendation: The quota seats of minorities should be increased from 10 to 20, and the method of election should be direct. All the constituencies where non-Muslims have a significant presence should be declared as multimember constituencies, starting from the constituency with the largest percentage of minority and end where quota is completed.

Reform is defined as the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc., in the system. Therefore, the wrongs or shortcomings of the system are discussed, and possible solutions developed for improvement are stated in this essay. However, unless the people of Pakistan are involved in the reform debate in a meaningful way, the whole exercise of electoral reform will have no legitimacy and no impact.

Sarwar Bari is the former Secretary-General of FAFEN and he heads Pattan Development Organisation. Pattan has been working with disaster-prone and marginalized communities since 1992 when super floods hit Pakistan. Since its inception, the organization has evolved a holistic disaster risk reduction approach that stands on five themes: capacity building, gender mainstreaming, social action, governance monitoring, and defending human rights and civil liberties. Research-based advocacy is being used for public policy improvement. Currently, Pattan’s partners are working in 27 districts of Pakistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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