Why Electoral Reforms Are Needed Before Any Move Towards Elections

Why Electoral Reforms Are Needed Before Any Move Towards Elections
Pakistan is heading towards another political confrontation between the coalition government parties and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) following the decision to restrict the latter’s “Azadi March” to the capital. Ever since his ouster as Prime Minister, Imran Khan has been demanding for the announcement of an election date in order to take down a government which he terms as “imported” and installed through an “American-backed conspiracy”. The already-volatile political and economic situation seems to be worsening at a greater pace due to growing unrest and instability.

Whether or not Imran Khan prevails with his designs, elections in the country will remain a colossal task given that major electoral decisions have yet to be deliberated upon. The impending reforms agenda remains on the backburner. The election reforms bill along with two Presidential Ordinances concerning denotification of members who have yet to take oath and permitting cabinet members to participate in election campaigns have not been taken into consideration by the Parliament. Earlier, during a joint sitting of the Parliament held in November 2021, the PTI-led government had pushed through 33 pieces of legislation including the Elections (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 permitting the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and i-voting enabling overseas voters to cast their votes. This was perhaps the first-time ever when an election amendment was passed without a larger political consensus.

The applicability and practicality of the use of EVMs and i-voting remains unclear. Given the array of allied complications including the procurement of machines, security, transportation, storage space and training of officials, the usage of EVMs has yet to be fully incorporated in various sections of the Elections Act 2017. Similar is the case with i-voting that raises serious questions on how the ECP might move forward with this preposition. The single-liner Elections (Second Amendment) Act does not provide for the intricate details about the usage of EVMs or i-voting. The Parliament needs to deliberate and decide upon the direction for the election management body to employ for the conduct of polls. However, in the current situation, it seems unlikely that such decisions will be taken up any time soon.

Another area of concern is the delimitation of constituencies. The ECP had decided to complete the delimitation of national and provincial assemblies’ constituencies by August 2022 on the basis of the 2017 census. However, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) had also made the decision of a fresh census after differences over the results of the earlier exercise. This may prompt a repeat exercise for delimiting constituencies. According to the Elections Act 2017, a delimitation exercise has to be completed four months prior to the announcement of the election program.

The Election Commission remains incomplete since July 2021. Members from Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have yet to be appointed. With only three members including the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and one each from Sindh and Balochistan, it will be difficult to manage a situation of dispute, if any arises during the electoral cycle. According to Section 3 (3) of the Elections Act 2017 “if any matter requiring a decision of the Commission, there is difference of opinion amongst its members, the opinion of the majority shall prevail and the decision of the Commission shall be expressed in terms of the opinion of the majority of the full Commission, comprising all its members.”

Given that the Commission remains incomplete, any critical issue pending decision will remain in a state of limbo until the Court suggests otherwise. This will further complicate issues in an otherwise already-politically fragmented environment.

Pakistan’s electoral rolls are the sixth largest in the world, with more than 120 million citizens. Given the size of the electoral rolls that swelled by over 15 million between 2018 and 2022, more preparations are mandated to accommodate them: especially by establishing an additional number of polling stations, training and deployment of staff as well as publishing materials, etc. Though the ECP is mandated to carry out polls as and when they are held, the management of the upcoming elections will be an arduous assignment.

Moreover, the women’s registration issue still persists in the country where their political participation is marred by cultural and administrative barriers. A gender-gap of over 11.7 million between male and female voters still continues to exist on the electoral rolls. The ECP had recently taken up efforts to contain the gap. However, with the announcement of polls, any fresh registration campaigns will also be halted, leading to disenfranchisement of this enormous number of women from their right to vote.

The Parliament needs to consider these critical factors before any elections are held – for them to be fair, free and transparent. Without the realisation of reforms, the country may witness yet another election that is highly controversial, leading to another tumultuous and disastrous situation that may be difficult to manage. Given that the country’s economy already faces numerous challenges in wake of the pandemic, global trends and ill-informed polices, Pakistan requires stable governance, an enabling environment for fresh policies as well as reforms that helps us out of the ongoing ruckus and chaos.

The writer is a Chevening Scholar and a researcher on parliamentary and electoral affairs. He tweets at @dnananjum