Flawed Election Systems in South Asia

Flawed election systems
By I.A. Rehman: Dawn, December 13, 2007

SOUTH Asians have many reasons to rue their condition. Prominent among them is a persistent failure to establish democratic electoral mechanisms. Several countries in the region are facing difficulties in holding free, fair and democratic elections, and nowhere has the task become as problematic as in Pakistan.

This became apparent as experts from the region recently debated the requisites of an ‘inclusive electoral process’ at the invitation of a South Asian human rights network. The experts were invited to share their experiences of holding elections and their reform plans with delegates from the region. The objective was to determine the essential features of an electoral process that would meet the highest possible standards and the result would reflect the pluralist society that each South Asian country is.

What made a Pakistani disconsolate, though the deliberations were both stimulating and fruitful, was the realisation that while different South Asian states were facing different sets of problems, Pakistan seemed to have gathered on its plate all of them and something extra.

Several Indian states are now in the grip of election fever, none more than Gujarat where a chief minister who has been universally condemned for the 2002 pogrom is threatening India’s entire effort at establishing a secular democracy. Nothing causes the democrats there more anguish than the gnawing feeling that the more Narendra Modi’s criminal record is exposed the better his chances of return to power seem to become. And this despite the existence of the most powerful of the national election authorities in the region, one that is known for speedily responding to challenges and holding its own against the executive. Unavoidable is the question: what good is an electoral process if it cannot offer the people safety and security against a communalist predator?

Pakistan’s fledgling democrats may be facing a similar problem: how to devise an electoral framework that cannot be exploited by anti-democratic elements to make a mockery of democratic institutions.

Nepal claims to have mobilised people’s power to establish a democratic order twice in less than two decades. Last year the people won their right to a new constitution to be framed by a democratically elected constituent assembly. The promised election has already been delayed by many months. Meanwhile extra-democratic attempts, some of them extra-legal too, are being made to ensure what General Ziaul Haq would have described as ‘positive results’. Does this amount to pre-poll rigging?

Only a decade has passed since Bangladesh took the lead in providing in the constitution for an independent caretaker regime for holding a general election. The initiative was hailed in all neighbouring countries. Most of all in Pakistan where elections have been more suspect than elsewhere. But the result desired has not been achieved, thanks to the well-known South Asian genius for bending constitutional provisions to suit partisan interests. The present caretakers have been unable to hold elections within the stipulated period. These are now promised in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh regime is trying to use legal instruments to root out political corruption, something all military rulers in Pakistan have done and failed. More promising perhaps are attempts to develop a foolproof poll system. Which merely shows that independent caretakers, if such angels can at all be found, are not enough to guarantee fair elections if the electoral system remains flawed. Unfortunately the Pakistan regime appears determined not to learn this lesson till some more time has been lost in debilitating misadventures.

The history of Pakistan shows that soon after independence the party in power developed such a dread of reference to the people that it moved farther and farther away from the minimum standards of free and fair elections. Worse, none of its successors has made any meaningful effort to break with the unholy tradition. As a result, no general election can be claimed to have been fair. The one or two elections that are popularly believed to have been relatively fair deserve the distinction because of a general impression that official manipulation was on a lower scale than usual.

Further, attempts at electoral reform have been largely limited to ensuring orderly polling or, latterly, to basing results on a correct count of the ballots cast. Important though these aspects of a general election are they do not meet the most decisive requirements of fair and democratic elections. The main defects and deficiencies of Pakistan’s electoral system can be summarised as under:

* The franchise is still not wholly democratic. The Ahmedis continue to be denied, contrary to law, the benefit of the joint electorate system that was revived, after 17 years of deviation, in 2002. In respect of other communities too the logic of a single voters’ list is not fully respected.

* The fruits of the electoral system are not available in full measure to the people living in Fata and the Northern Areas.

* The government continues to resist the demand for an independent and efficient Election Commission. The mode of the Chief Election Commissioner’s appointment, the system of forming the Election Commission only after an election has been notified and the initial part of the electoral process completed, the commission’s lack of comprehension of democratic imperatives, and its failure to protect the democratic rights of the more vulnerable elements — women, the poorest sections, homeless nomads, the riverbank population, the prison population and non-resident Pakistanis — all imply institutional obstacles to fair election.

* Failure to eliminate exploitation of belief for electoral advantage and denial of the right to vote and contest election to women, both offences listed in the penal code, seriously undermine the sanctity and credibility of elections.

* The objective of registering all eligible voters remains unrealised.

* The government sees nothing wrong in the escalating costs of contesting elections which is increasingly limiting the field to people of doubtful credentials.

* A huge majority of the underprivileged is excluded from electoral contest, thereby making progress towards a pluralist democracy impossible. Even suggestions that some of the candidates’ financial burden should be assumed by the Election Commission have gone unheeded.

* Successive regimes have sought to suppress the fundamental issue that democratic elections are impossible under a regime that can manipulate the Constitution and the law for personal or factional gain.

Unless the above-mentioned impediments to fair elections, some of which are institutional in character, are removed the crisis of legitimacy will not be over.

One of the painful conclusions from the South Asian experts’ deliberations is the reluctance of states such as Pakistan to learn from positive initiatives within the region. For instance, the Bangladesh Election Commission claims to have found a way to eliminate personation or chances of anyone voting more than once by preparing biometric records of each one of the country’s 90 million voters. If this system works the problems caused by defects in voter lists, non-availability of polling agents and lack of identification papers (NIC, etc) may disappear.

The Indian Election Commission asserts that its electronic voting machines guarantee a fair count, and that no complaint of manipulating results has been heard for 11 years. Has Pakistan studied this process?

The only explanation for Pakistan’s keenness to persist with a flawed electoral system and a moribund Election Commission could be its permanent establishment’s contempt for the people’s sovereign rights.

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