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Sunday, November 26, 2023

The electoral system of Pakistan needs a complete overhaul

The Oxford English dictionary defines reform as “the amendment, or altering for the better, of some faulty state of things, esp. of a corrupt or oppressive political institution or practice; the removal of some abuse or wrong.”

Therefore, the logic demands to first identify faults and abuses, and then to assess their negative impact on society, politics, economy or environment or state, etcetera, and their scale.

Only then, the appropriate solutions could be formulated. The next step must be to ascertain opinions of and to negotiate with stakeholders for final outcome. The government seems to be serious about improving the electoral system of the country. However, the meaning of reform in her view is very limited – procedural dimension.  

Unlike the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment (which was negotiated secretly and passed without any meaningful debate in the parliament and without involving major stakeholders), the incumbent federal government has unveiled an electoral reform agenda on 3 May and the government ministers announced that the reform agenda would be presented to ‘the civil society, the media and bar councils and associations.’

This provides a huge opportunity to opposition political parties, scholars, media, and civil society to contribute to the debate and also to push for meaningful reforms. While the electoral media is debating the issue enthusiastically, major opposition parties have outrightly rejected the government offer and civil society organizations seem to be silent. Isn’t sad?

Moreover, unfortunately, most TV talk shows have narrowed down their debate on Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). This has most likely happened due to recently held (controversial) by-elections. The government could also be blamed for making its own reform agenda controversial by over-simplifying its presentation. 

Read More: Electoral Reforms: Is PPP going to support PTI?

Very often when the top (elites) tries to down the reforms, hidden mischief has always been its integral part. And therefore, all top-down reforms at the end benefit all or some section/s of the elites.

Therefore, it is imperative for civil society and independent media to help people understand the dynamics of the reform agenda. But mere understanding is not enough, dynamics must be impacted through public action.        

In the past few days, various TV channels have invited me to their talk shows to have my opinion on NA-249 by-election and electoral reforms. It was indeed a great opportunity to expose the corrupt practices of corrupt, greedy, and power-hungry politicians.

I tried to scale up the debate but hardly anybody noticed my point of view. On 3rd May Dr. Moeed Pirzada invited me to his show – ‘Hard Talk’. I am thankful to him for giving me sufficient time to explain my analysis. 

Status quo of the electoral system

This is what I said during his show: In the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, about 5-7% of members had some relationship with trade unions and the peasant movement. For instance, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was first elected president of the All India Postal Union Association whose membership in 1925 was about 70,000.

He remained its president till 1947. In the 1970 general elections, about 9-11% of members of assemblies had an organic relationship with trade and student unions. Consider names of Sheikh Rasheed, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, and Mukhtar Rana, etc. 

Read More: Can government and opposition introduce electoral reforms?

Today, our elected bodies have none. However, they are leading figures of Sugar Mills Association, APTMA, Farmers Association, Chambers of Commerce and Industries, etc. Moreover, on the contrary, political leaders shamelessly filled the assemblies and the Senate by bringing their kin and cronies.

Just consider Sharif, Zardari/Bhutto, Chaudhari, Leghari, Khosa, Talpur, Jamali, and Gilani dynasties. While our parliament consists of 444 members, they according to some estimates belong to just 200 plus dynasties. 

Isn’t shameful. Is it sustainable? Nature abhors imbalance, whether it is economic, social or political. Our 70% of people suffer from multiple inequalities. Is it a democracy or a rule of kleptocrats in the name of democracy? One can condemn the violence of TLP, but it is a sign of huge and widespread resentment against the system. 

End this abuse through electoral reforms. I also said in Dr. Pirzada’s talk show that Article 38 of the Constitution (control over means of production and wealth) should be extended to the political arena.

Our Constitution also promises a quota for marginalized groups. Therefore, seats must be reserved for peasants and workers in our assemblies and the Senate.

I also explained why Pakistan should shift from the Westminster model of election to proportionate representation (PR) (assembly seats won according to share in the vote) model as our elected assemblies never represented the majority of the registered and polled votes. 

I would like to share the findings of our research that no ruling coalition ever had a mandate from more than 20% of the total registered voters in Pakistan. Some had even less than 15%. Consider this also. Peoples’ Party candidates got less than 20% of the polled and a mere 4.7% of the total registered voters. 

A thin mandate would often make the ruling coalition nervous and reduce its confidence while it would encourage the opposition to adopt an aggressive posture. Nature hates void.

Read More: Pakistani Democracy: From Electoral Politics to Governance

No wonder situations like that often cause political instability as it attracts new players and paves the way for all kinds of ills. No wonder, our electoral system is vulnerable to fraud and obvious manipulation of moneyed and muscle power.      

Consider this. The results of the 2008 general elections of Punjab reveal that as many as 55% or 11.76 million of the polled votes were wasted. In other words, they didn’t have any representation. Moreover, all the returned candidates obtained just 22% or 9.67 million of the total 44.20 million registered votes.

In other provinces, MPs have a narrower social mandate. With little variation, this has been true for all general and by-elections. Taking a cue from Mr. Abbasi, Dr. Pirzada posed a very pertinent question about the USA’s electoral system where Trump had received more than 70 million votes and they all had no representation.

Without going into details of the USA system, I would argue that elections should not be equated with sports, where the winner takes all. Election means democracy and representation and good governance. Therefore, we must move to the PR system as it distributes seats to contesting parties according to their share in votes. 

Let me also inform the readers that only 54 of 195 countries use the Westminster model (first-past-the-post or winner takes all), while 90 countries follow the PR system, while 38 have adopted mix system. We must develop a suitable model of elections as the current one has evidently failed to be representative.    

A system that denies the majority a representation can’t sustain itself. No doubt the PR system is more representative and more democratic. So, why our political class is in a state of denial?

Read More: “New Elections” without “Electoral Reforms” will be meaningless: Why?

MP Ms. Nafisa Shah, one of the participants of the talk show, revealed a lot by arguing though blatantly that there was no need for such reforms as there exists a consensus on the current electoral system.

She defended the elites very well but not the peoples’ sentiments and reality. I never thought she would be so naïve and conservative. However, Mr. Javed Satti and another participant agreed to dialogue on the above-mentioned issues, while Mr. Farrukh Habib State Minister for Information and Broadcasting showed his enthusiasm for electoral reforms.  

The proposed reform

Finally, I would like to put forward the following agenda for electoral reforms: 

  • People who can steal ballot boxes and kidnap presiding officers can steal EVMs too. So prevent the thieves from stealing and this could be achieved by eliminating the incentive.
  • Adopt the PR model of election as it will end the stranglehold of so-called electable.
  • Reserve at least 33% seats in all assemblies for peasants and workers.
  • Fill all seats through direct vote.
  • Senate election should also be held by adult franchise. 
  • Only democratically run parties can deepen democracy and bring good governance. Therefore, every party must hold its elections at regular intervals and seats to candidates must be allocated through members. ECP should conduct their elections and observers and media should be allowed to observe the process.  
  • End monopoly of families in assemblies.
  • Let overseas Pakistanis participate in elections. 
  • Introduce the one person-one ticket principle. End persons to contest from multiple constituencies simultaneously. 
  • Till we adopt a PR system, for returned candidates fix 50% plus formula.   
  • Adopt machine-readable ballot paper and E-counting and tabulation.   

The above-mentioned reforms will revolutionize our polity, bring good governance, build the trust of people in political parties and the well-being of the people. 

My request to the Prime Minister is to go for substantive reforms and the media should also debate on substantive issues instead of about EVM.  

Read More: NA-249: PML-N wants ECP to place election material under Army’s supervision

Mr. Sarwar Bari is the former Secretary-General of FAFEN and he heads Pattan Development Organisation. He contributes op-ed articles to various national newspapers. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.