Make elections democratic
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.