Election Reform in Pakistan
16 Aug 2012
With fresh elections just months away, Pakistan’s government and opposition must urgently implement key reforms to the electoral commission to cement the transition to democracy and stave off another indefinite period of unaccountable rule.
Election Reform in Pakistan, the latest policy briefing from the International Crisis Group, warns of the potentially destabilising fallout if the transfer of power does not take place through free, fair, transparent and democratic elections, either when the government completes a full five-year term in March 2013 or earlier. If the elections are to be credible and ensure a smooth transition from one elected government to another for the first time in the country’s history, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) must be overhauled and made truly independent, fair and effective.
“Polls supervised by an independent and impartial electoral body are far more likely to be accepted as free and fair”, says Samina Ahmed, Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director. “For change to come through the ballot box, and not through the military or the courts, ECP reform is vital”.
Over the last two decades, Pakistan’s elections have often been rigged by the military, using a subservient ECP that lacked autonomy and authority to do its bidding. In 2010, parliament amended the constitution, distorted by General Musharraf’s military regime, to strengthen federal parliamentary democracy. The ECP, in an advanced state of institutional decay, acknowledged its shortcomings and came up with a strategic plan to reform itself. Some of its targets have been met, but many have not been and are unlikely ever to be unless parliament assumes political ownership of the plan and monitors its implementation.
An encouraging sign has been the appointment through unanimous parliamentary consensus of a chief election commissioner – a first in Pakistan’s electoral history – but much more needs to be done. Flaws in the electoral process must now be removed. Voters have to be given time to identify errors and omissions on the electoral rolls; polling procedures should be improved; the code of conduct must be amended to ensure that it does not curb legitimate political activity and disenfranchise voters; and accountability mechanisms for candidates and parties must be strengthened. Dysfunctional election tribunals, responsible for excessive delays and even corruption, should be urgently reformed.
The international community should lend its support to the process by warning the military that it will not accept any postponement of the polls or other steps to derail the voting process. Pakistan’s political parties, meanwhile, must all work together to ensure that the democratic transition continues and remains sustainable.
“The government and the opposition should put aside their political differences and urgently reach consensus on the neutral caretaker government that will be needed to remain in office in the crucial period between the end of the parliament’s term through the 90 days before elections and the subsequent formation of the newly elected government”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Acting Program Director for Asia. “Their failure to do so could disrupt the democratic process, giving the military, potentially with the support of the superior judiciary, the opportunity to disrupt the democratic process”.