Make elec­tions demo­cratic

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - I.A. Rehman

THE re­port that the par­lia­men­tary sub­com­mit­tee has fi­nalised its rec­om­men­da­tions for elec­toral re­form will be wel­comed by all demo­cratic-minded cit­i­zens. Also wel­come are the ef­forts to make im­prove­ments in the elec­tion sys­tem as com­pre­hen­sive as pos­si­ble. An­other at­tempt of this na­ture, in­volv­ing some changes in the Con­sti­tu­tion it­self, may not be pos­si­ble for a long time. There­fore, be­fore the re­form pro­pos­als go to par­lia­ment for leg­is­la­tion, it is nec­es­sary to en­sure that the re­vised elec­toral frame­work sat­is­fies all crit­ics of the ex­ist­ing prac­tices.

The in­for­ma­tion that the par­lia­men­tary sub­com­mit­tee has been re­leas­ing about its work, for­mally as well as in­for­mally, in­di­cates that it has ad­dressed its task with con­sid­er­able thor­ough­ness. It is said to have ex­am­ined most of the is­sues raised by dif­fer­ent political par­ties, civil so­ci­ety groups, and con­cerned cit­i­zens.

Th­ese mat­ters in­clude the qual­i­fi­ca­tions for mem­ber­ship of the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion of Pak­istan, the method of se­lect­ing an act­ing chief elec­tion com­mis­sioner, the se­lec­tion of the polling staff from re­turn­ing of­fi­cers to as­sis­tant pre­sid­ing of­fi­cers, de­lim­i­ta­tion of con­stituen­cies and re­vi­sion of elec­toral rolls, pro­tec­tion of women's right to vote, and the process for the dec­la­ra­tion of re­sults. A spe­cial ef­fort is said to have been made to en­sure that elec­tion tri­bunals com­plete hear­ings of post-elec­tion pe­ti­tions within a short pe­riod.

The sub­com­mit­tee fol­lowed the prin­ci­ple of mak­ing only such rec­om­men­da­tions as were backed by con­sen­sus among its mem­bers. It de­cided to re­fer all sug­ges­tions on which the mem­bers were di­vided to the main par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee, headed by Fi­nance Min­is­ter Ishaq Dar. The need for an ex­pe­di­tious com­ple­tion of the task re­ferred to the par­ent body can­not be overem­pha­sised.

Any de­lay at this end will hold up the fi­nal­i­sa­tion of the amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion and the rel­e­vant laws and pro­ce­dures. Sen­a­tor Dar should be per­suaded to re­view his state­ment that as a gen­eral elec­tion is 30 months away there is no need to rush mat­ters. Ex­pe­ri­ence up­holds the wis­dom in avoid­ing tar­di­ness as de­ci­sions taken at the eleventh hour of­ten leave some­thing to be de­sired. Be­sides, the peo­ple should be given suf­fi­cient time to dis- cuss the pro­pos­als fi­nalised by the par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee and its sub­com­mit­tee, how­ever dili­gently and open­mind­edly they might have worked.

Free elec­tions will not be pos­si­ble un­til all ves­tiges of feu­dal cul­ture have been erased. The de­bate about elec­toral re­form has been dom­i­nated by decades-long clam­our against rig­ging and other mal­prac­tices dur­ing polls. It is, there­fore, nec­es­sary to em­pha­sise that while elec­tions must be free - in the sense that ev­ery voter is free to ex­er­cise his or her right to fran­chise with­out any pres­sure or threat or un­law­ful in­duce­ment - and fair - in the sense that the out­come must re­flect a true count of the bal­lots ac­tu­ally cast in the pre­scribed man­ner - they must, above all, be demo­cratic.

It is rel­a­tively easy to en­sure fair­ness of polling but re­moval of the ob­sta­cles to free elec­tions will de­mand a con­certed ef­fort over a con­sid­er­ably long pe­riod be­cause th­ese ob­sta­cles are em­bed­ded in our so­cial struc­tures. A large num­ber of peo­ple in the ru­ral ar­eas obey the or­ders of their land­lords who are of­ten them­selves can­di­dates for elec­tion. The ten­ants and field work­ers be­long­ing to mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties do not even know what free­dom of choice means. A large num­ber of women vot­ers are still pre­vented from cast­ing their bal­lots and many of those who are al­lowed to vote dare not defy the fam­ily pa­tri­arch's fiat.

Fur­ther, eth­nic or bi­raderi bonds have not weak­ened to the ex­tent that or­di­nary peo­ple can defy their pulls while choos­ing can­di­dates they should back. Above all, the use of re­li­gion to force peo­ple to vote for or against some­one has in­creased, de­spite the fact that such prac­tices have since ages been listed in the pe­nal code as crim­i­nal of­fences.

In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, free elec­tions in all parts of the coun­try will not be pos­si­ble un­til all ves­tiges of feu­dal cul­ture have been erased and ex­ploita­tion of re­li­gion for political pur­poses has ended. In­stead of wait­ing for th­ese ideals to be re­alised, mea­sures must be adopted for short-term re­lief through prompt iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of all of­fend­ers and giv­ing them de­ter­rent pun­ish­ment.

Still, even rea­son­ably free and fair elec­tions will not throw up true rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple un­less the mo­nop­oly of money­bags over elec­tive of­fices is bro­ken and all as­pi­rants to th­ese of­fices are al­lowed a level play­ing field. The par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee's pro­pos­als will es­pe­cially be tested on this point.

Ever since the sys­tem of elec­tion was in­tro­duced in the sub­con­ti­nent, the use of money be­yond the limit fixed by the law has been un­der at­tack. In the past, it was the main cause of elected leg­is­la­tors' dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion un­til other grounds, such as cheat­ing with re­gard to ed­u­ca­tional de­grees or dec­la­ra­tion of as­sets, were added to elec­toral mal­prac­tices. Be­fore the last elec­tion the Supreme Court did try to reg­u­late elec­tion ex­penses but the ef­fort was frus­trated by our ge­nius for cir­cum­vent­ing laws and reg­u­la­tions. One can only hope that the par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee's re­form pack­age will lay down a clear-cut, en­force­able regime for doc­u­men­ta­tion of all elec­tion ex­penses, whether met by can­di­dates them­selves or by their sup­port­ers and their political pa­trons.

Only af­ter elec­tion ex­penses have been rad­i­cally re­duced will it be pos­si­ble for peo­ple with mod­est means to join the race. Un­til that hap­pens, seats should be re­served in the fed­eral and pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tures for poor peo­ple, es­pe­cially peas­ants and work­ers. They have a bet­ter claim to the reser­va­tion of seats than ulema and pro­fes­sion­als who are now prom­i­nent in main­stream par­ties.

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