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OPINIONS: MAKING ELECTIONS MEANINGFUL

By Aqil Sajjad*, aqil_sajjad@yahoo.ca

Pakistan has seen many elections in its chequered history and almost all were labelled rigged, unfair or engineered by one political party or another. For the upcoming elections, the opposition has already started voicing its fears of manipulation by the government, while the latter promises to conduct free and fair elections.  

In addition to the controversy over rigging, several other structural flaws exist in our political system. These prevent elections from being a meaningful exercise for the genuine empowerment of the people. Some issues involving elections have gone largely unnoticed thus far and need to be addressed. Here are some suggestions:  

1. The Election Commission should be made independent. For this purpose, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition should nominate up to three names for the chief election commissioner and other key offices of the election commission. A joint parliamentary committee comprising of treasury and opposition members (in proportion to their seats in parliament) should decide upon these nominations. Appointments for the provincial election commissions should be made in the same way by joint committees of the respective provincial assemblies.  

2. The Election Commission should comprise four branches, namely the voter enrolment wing, the political qualifications wing, the political programmes wing and the elections wing. Their functions should be as follows:  

(a) The voter enrolment wing should prepare and maintain an up to date voters lists.  
 
(b) The political qualifications wing should investigate the declared assets and credentials of all aspirants for political office. The wing should invite confidential observations from the public to determine whether candidates meet the eligibility criteria for contesting elections. It should prepare a summary of its findings and forward it to a public jury for an open hearing. The jury should qualify a person only if the declared assets are complete and accurate and there is no evidence of prior corruption or abuse of power on his part. The jury should disqualify a candidate if adequate grounds for disqualification are found after giving him a chance to defend himself.   All such hearings should be open to the general public and the media for live coverage. The credentials of the candidates, their declared assets, the summaries prepared by the political qualifications wing, and full transcripts of the hearings should become public documents and be made available on the Internet.   The qualification process should start at least six months before the elections to allow adequate time. Only qualified people should be allowed to contest the elections.  
 
(c) The political programmes wing should collect the manifestos of all the contesting political parties and make them available to the media and various professional forums in the country. It should also hold live debates on the manifestos as explained in point 6 below.  

(d) The elections wing should administer the actual polling process.  

3. In order to improve transparency and reduce the chances of manipulation of results, the counts at each polling station should be announced on-site as the final and official results for that polling station. The final result declared at the centre should be a simple compilation of the figures announced at all the polling stations and include a breakup of the votes received by each contestant at each polling station.  

4. All political parties should be required to submit their manifestoes to the political programmes registration wing in Urdu, English and relevant regional languages at least 6 months before general elections in addition to making them available on their official party websites.   5. To help the voters decide whether the party programmes are viable and not just rhetorical statements, the manifestoes should include, as an integral part, adequate explanation of where the funds for all the promised projects and schemes shall come from.  

6. The political programmes wing of the Election Commission should hold live debates on the manifestos starting at least three months before the elections. Recordings and transcripts of the debates should also be made available on the Internet. The debates should be of the following three categories:  

(a) Debates on national manifestos: These should cover the party programmes for the federal government and should be transmitted live to the entire nation on national radio and TV with the recordings and transcripts made available online.  

(b) Debates on provincial manifestos: These should be held separately and should focus on the programmes for provincial governments. These should also be transmitted live to the whole nation on national radio and TV with the recordings and transcripts made available online.  

(c) Live debates for individual MNA or MPA seats: These should be held on local radio and TV stations (with the recordings and transcripts also posted on the Internet) where candidates should explain what legislative issues concern them and how they intend to address them in the legislative assembly. Every candidate for the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies should be required to participate in at least 5 such debates before the elections. Debates of categories (a) and (b) should not count towards this requirement.  

7. Each political party should hold intra-party elections at least 6 months prior to general elections. The party leadership at all three tiers (federal, provincial and local) should be elected through these elections. The central executive body of each party should also be elected, and not appointed at the sole discretion of the party leader. To ensure transparency, these intra-party processes should be completely open to the media and the general public.  

8. Party tickets should be awarded through a transparent and democratic process. Party candidate for every seat should be elected by party workers within the relevant constituency in an exercise of intra-party democracy. These elections should be fully open to the media and the general public to ensure transparency.  

9. It must be recognised that the role of MNAs and MPAs is legislation and not the running of local governments in their constituencies. For this reason, candidates for national and provincial assembly seats should be discouraged from making election promises pertaining to matters that fall in the purview of local governments. Moreover, all political parties should unanimously pass a constitutional amendment to ban the practice of allocating development funds to MNAs and MPAs for their constituencies, since such funds amount to an encroachment on the domain of local governments.  

10. Election results for any seat where women's turn-out is less than 25 per cent of the total turn-out should be annulled.  

The above is neither an exhaustive list of the needed reforms nor a perfect proposal. However, the author hopes that the government, the opposition and the media will constructively debate these and similar ideas, in an attempt to devise a reasonable framework to help make our fractured democracy more participatory and meaningful for the masses.

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* Mr. Aqil Sajjad is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

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