Election Reform in Pakistan
Asia Briefing N°137
16 Aug 2012
The stabilisation of Pakistan’s democratic transition will depend to a considerable extent on the manner in which the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) conducts the next general elections. These are due when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led coalition government ends its five-year term in March 2013, or earlier if it so decides. Rigged elections and distortions of the process by military regimes or military-controlled governments have left the ECP in an advanced state of institutional decay. If the next elections are to result in the smooth transfer of power from one elected government to another and be widely perceived as legitimate and democratic by all stakeholders, it is imperative that the ECP be truly independent, impartial and effective.
The PPP-led government has an opportunity, for the first time in the country’s history, to ensure that the transfer of power to the next government takes place through a credible electoral exercise. It is a daunting task, given challenges that include insecurity, particularly in the tribal borderlands troubled by militant violence and the declining writ of the state, and the need to ensure participation of more than 84 million voters. In the interests of democratic consolidation, the ruling party and its main parliamentary opposition, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League [Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)], should put aside their political differences and focus on empowering the ECP. But empowering that body should also include reforming it, including via parliamentary oversight of a bureaucracy that has helped rigged elections in the past. Moreover, ruling party and political opposition (within and outside parliament) must cooperate to ensure that the ECP’s amended code of conduct, based on the Supreme Court’s directives, does not curb legitimate political activity and disenfranchise voters.
When provided the political space as now, and despite the challenges posed by an increasingly interventionist judiciary and a perennially intrusive military, Pakistan’s elected representatives have enacted tangible measures to consolidate democratic functioning. The eighteenth constitutional amendment, passed unanimously by parliament in 2010, removed General Pervez Musharraf’s constitutional distortions and included new provisions to strengthen federal parliamentary democracy. In the specific context of elections, it made the appointment of the chief election commissioner (CEC) more transparent and subject to parliamentary oversight. Instead of the president handpicking the CEC, that official and the other four members of the ECP are now selected through consultations between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, then vetted by a joint parliamentary committee, comprising legislators from the ruling party or coalition and an equal number from the opposition, that makes the final decision.
Although their relationship is far from cordial, the PPP and PML-N have put aside major differences to remove political hurdles that could derail the electoral process. The stalled deliberations between the government and the opposition on the appointment of the new CEC were particularly problematic, but they ultimately reached consensus. On 9 July 2012, the joint parliamentary committee unanimously approved a widely-respected former ad hoc judge of the Supreme Court, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim. They now face the urgent task of reaching consensus on the appointment of impartial caretaker governments in the centre and the provinces. The longer that is delayed, the greater the prospects of the electoral process, and even the democratic transition, coming to a halt.
With its leadership now fully reconstituted in accordance with the eighteenth amendment, the ECP must move quickly to enact major electoral reforms and remove flaws in the electoral process for the next general elections. Voters must be given every opportunity to identify errors and omissions, which must be removed from the electoral rolls. Polling procedures should be improved and accountability mechanisms for candidates and political parties improved; and dysfunctional election tribunals, characterised by excessive delays and widespread corruption, should be urgently reformed.
In May 2010, the ECP, acknowledging its weaknesses, produced a five-year strategic plan that listed fifteen broad electoral reform goals, subdivided into 129 detailed objectives, each with specific timelines for completion. While some targets have been met, many have not; nor, indeed, are they likely to be achieved unless parliament assumes political ownership of the plan and closely monitors implementation. For change to come through the ballot box, and not through the military or the courts, ECP reform is vital. An election administered by an independent, impartial and adequately resourced election management body will be accepted as free and fair by all stakeholders and therefore have the legitimacy needed to deter potential spoilers. A weak and unreformed ECP would raise the risk of a flawed election that the military might use as justification to derail the democratic process, paving the way for yet another indefinite period of unaccountable rule and destabilising a fragile polity.
The main steps required to advance reform include:
government and opposition should forge a consensus on neutral caretaker regimes at the centre and in the provinces to govern during the election period and resist any military attempts to manipulate the polls;
the ECP should make every effort to verify, validate, update and augment the final electoral rolls, ensuring that citizens are not disenfranchised. After consulting all relevant stakeholders, it should also immediately prepare a list of permanent polling stations, publish it on its website and then provide reasons in writing for any subsequent changes;
parties should educate constituents on the need to acquire computerised national identity cards (CNICs), register as voters and verify their entries on the rolls, making amendments where necessary; the ECP should train its officials to vet voter CNICs effectively;
the ECP should consult parties on the amended code of conduct and incorporate their recommendations; otherwise, parliament should rationalise the code, including more realistic campaign expenditure ceilings and removal of unnecessary restrictions such as the bar on parties, candidates and election agents providing transport to voters;
immediately post-elections, the government should hold a census, and the ECP should ensure transparent constituency delimitation, sending its report to federal and provincial parliaments for review and approval;
the ECP should establish permanent polling stations after consulting relevant stakeholders well before the elections, publish locations on its website and provide written reasons for any subsequent changes;
the ECP should install an effective results-management system to compile results expeditiously and transparently and put the results on its website as soon as available;
the ECP should put in place a transparent recruitment, hiring and performance evaluation system for staff;
to prevent disenfranchisement of women, the ECP should monitor electoral turnout and results at both female and combined polling stations and impose penalties on those who prevent women from voting;
to ensure timely disposition of election petitions, parliament should pass the draft bill to create commissions in each district to vet petitions and send them directly to election tribunals for adjudication instead of through the ECP, which should appoint retired, not busy serving judges to head the tribunals; and
the international community should engage on electoral reform with not just the ECP but all stakeholders, particularly parliamentarians and political parties, in order to make reform sustainable, and should hold the ECP to its commitment to enhance access to credible election observers, both domestic and international.
Islamabad/Brussels, 16 August 2012