This article was published in Dawn on September 19, 2016 and is available at the following link
THE Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms which was constituted on July 25, 2014 to submit its report by Oct 24, 2014, seems to have set some kind of a record by overshooting its target date by a full 23 months. Not that the committee had been sitting idle all this time: it held 18 meetings and its three sub-committees met 72 times. Over this period, the committee seems to have expanded its scope and taken cognisance of some election-related developments which took place during the past two years.
True, all this activity is positive and the committee members and staff must be commended for the hard work that they have put in, or, rather, are putting in. But one can’t forget that the next general election is at most 20 months away and a lot of ground must be covered even after the committee finalises and presents its report to parliament. The committee has already lost the best time to develop a consensus: as we get closer to the next election date, obtaining multiparty consensus will become more and more difficult.
One hopes that parliament does not resort to hastily rushing through the package of electoral reforms legislation after it is finalised in the committee as it did in the case of the 22nd Constitutional Amendment which changed the eligibility criteria for the chief election commissioner and the members of the Election Commission of Pakistan. The electoral reforms committee had been sitting on the constitutional amendment until the retirement of the four ECP members created a constitutional void and then it introduced the amendment in parliament. Given time constraints, the two houses of parliament quickly passed the legislation.
There is much ground to cover before the next general elections.
Any package of electoral reforms proposed by the parliamentary committee must benefit from the recommendations contained in the report of the 2013 General Election Inquiry Commission. Although the commission did not find any evidence of organised vote rigging which could alter the election result in a material sense, it did point out a number of planning, execution and management flaws in the electoral process. Many of these issues need to be resolved by the ECP that must improve its internal procedures and lines of communication and reporting. However, some aspects may require legislation such as obligating the ECP to make its statement of counts from each constituency public on its website.
The ECP has lately removed some election-related material such as copies of the candidates’ nomination papers and legislators’ statements of assets and liabilities from its website on the pretext that the law does not expressly demand that — though the law says that these documents be made public. The proposed electoral reforms legislation package may remove such lacunae.
Automated identification of the voter and casting of ballots has been another aspect of electoral reforms demanded by a section of society. The results of applying the necessary technology in electoral processes in other countries have been mixed. Many countries have returned to conventional balloting after experimenting with electronic voting. India, after using paper-less electronic voting machines for a number of years, has now resorted to the ‘paper trail’ as well. The introduction of EVMs and biometric identification of voters will, therefore, need to be undertaken with utmost care.
It is laudable that the ECP has undertaken these two operations by first using the machines under a pilot project in the by-elections. But now, the results of this experiment should be carefully monitored and analysed to assess how effective they will be in maintaining complete electoral transparency. In case consensus is reached on the introduction of these and other technologies after favourable feedback on the results of the pilot projects, parliament will be required to pass the necessary legislation.
Another important aspect of electoral reforms relates to political finance. This is an area of ever-growing concern in all democracies. The ever-increasing cost of election and thus the corresponding increase in the influence of money on elections is hugely worrisome.
The ECP has almost completely failed in enforcing the current election spending limits on candidates for provincial and national legislatures and local governments. Candidates seem to have violated with impunity the spending ceiling of Rs1 million and Rs1.5m for provincial and National Assembly constituencies respectively in the 2013 general election and subsequent by-elections.
Our current laws do not place an election spending limit on political parties. The changing nature of election and the increasing tendency to use expensive electronic media time for electioneering by political parties necessitates the passage of a law to regulate election spending by political parties.
Although the current laws provide for the annual submission of statements of assets and liabilities by each legislator, the ECP, which receives these statements and publishes them via gazette notifications, does not even check them for completeness. The law neither authorises the ECP to scrutinise the statements nor has it the capacity to undertake such a huge exercise.
Similarly, political parties are also required to submit their annual audited accounts to the ECP on a prescribed format. A review of these statements for almost all mainstream parties for the last seven years indicates that there are serious gaps in the statements submitted. For example, the sources of funding are never specifically identified. There is a need to bring in serious reforms in political finance. The ECP, which is charged with the task of monitoring political finance, is ill equipped for the job. It had established a political finance wing around the time of the 2013 general election but this one-man wing has been lying dormant since its director left.
To make the next election in 2018, or earlier, credible, a package of electoral reforms needs to be urgently proposed, debated and passed by parliament.