Urgent need for electoral reforms
Incidents of violence, electoral procedural irregularities and politically intense campaigns marked the recent NA-260, Chagai-Nuski-Quetta and PS-114, Karachi XXVI. The electoral reformsâ€™ issue remains on the back burner, even though the country witnessed post-2013 general elections tensions between the ruling PML-N and the PTI over results. International and domestic election observers termed the 2013 elections relatively better than the previous 2008 general elections. However, there were still a high number of electoral irregularities and discrepancies, primarily arising due to loopholes in the nine electoral laws. The PML-N positively responded to the growing tensions by establishing a Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PCER) in July 2014 under the chairmanship of Ishaq Dar with the mandate to make recommendations for electoral reforms, required to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. The PCER was a cross-chamber multiparty committee consisting of 34 members from all parliamentary parties, except the Balochistan National Party and the National Party. The PCER formed a subcommittee which was tasked to scrutinise existing laws, unify them and propose reforms. On December 20th 2016, the PCER revealed major electoral reforms through publication of the Draft Elections Bill 2017. The bill was finalised after receiving over 1,200 proposals from the public. It was a result of a remarkably constructive parliamentary process and is the most significant election reform undertaken by any civilian government. It was presented to the Senate and National Assembly, and made publicly available with a 30-day period for comment till January 19th 2017. In light of post-elections tensions and reservations by opposition parties, the bill proposed a number of crucial reforms that would provide for better and improved electoral practices. These reforms include more management autonomy to Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), proposing measures for their accountability, transparency provisions and requirements for establishing a complaint system. The proposed bill also define the process for conducting delimitation, strengthens the post-election tribunalsâ€™ process, preparation of electoral rolls and measures for polling, resultsâ€™ counting and tabulation. Many of these propositions address the post-2013 election controversies. For the first time in Pakistanâ€™s electoral history, the new law also proposes a legal definition of caretaker governments and provision of postal ballots for persons with disability. Moreover, there are measures for improved public finance and local government framework, along with responding to barriers concerning womenâ€™s registration and voting, and proposing improvements to the system of reserved seats for women.However, further improvements to the bill are required to avoid future problems. Key improvements include the allowance of power to the ECP to make its own rules without the proposed governmentâ€™s approval mechanism prescribed in the Draft Elections Bill 2017.
The proposed requirements of data publication are a positive step. But it may lack effectiveness if the level of required detail is not stipulated or a time frame is not defined to make it public. Moreover, the bill does not allow returning officers to initiate recounts and checks of polling station results, which may result in chaos situations in constituencies. The proposed mechanisms for out of country voting (OCV) is also extremely high risk. It grants the ECP paramount authority to decide in which foreign states OCV will be undertaken. Parliamentary parties need to reconsider this process as it will have a direct effect on election results.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and further improvements and reforms can be anticipated to resolve electoral issues. However, there is an urgent need to pass the bill ahead of 2018 general elections to avoid future tensions. Reforms are an ongoing process and further improvements can be made even after passing the bill. The passage of the bill is important to avoid electoral irregularities and issues similar to the ones we witnessed in 2013, and recently in PS-114.