The draft electoral reforms bill tabled by the government on 20 Dec. 2016 in the National Assembly is full of flaws. One such flaw allows continuation of political monopolies and control of political parties by ‘influential’ families.
Also it allows indirect elections to the Senate, which has the potential to allow party leaders to induct members based on nepotism and not merit.
What is of serious concern is, so far there has been only a cursory public debate on the draft bill with a couple of Non-governmental Organization (NGOs) like the FAFEN and PILDAT offering in-depth analysis of the draft bill and proposing some very vital suggestions for improving its effectiveness.
Political parties, by and large appeared not even to have bothered to read the draft bill what to talk of contributing to an informed debate on the positive/ negative aspects of the bill.
The draft bill in its current form only aims to protect the interests of ‘influential’ political actors who want to perpetuate the status quo.
One way of breaking the hold of ‘influential’ families over political parties is to make relevant changes in the Political Parties Act conditioning it mandatory on all political parties to be periodically subjected to election to be conducted by the Election Commission of Pakistan and restricting office holders and their close family members to only two consecutive terms of five years each.
This will help in institutionalizing the political parties rather than continuing to consign them into family fiefdoms. This will also reduce the influence of money, cast and creed on political parties enabling them to reset their political goals on the basis of how they want to serve their country and the nation.
The first past the post system of election has given Punjab a lopsided political advantage because of it being more populated than the other three provinces put together. Any political party capturing Punjab invariably stands to capture the center even if it had not won a single seat in each of the other three provinces. This was proved beyond any doubt when the PMLN swept Punjab in the 2013 elections with only too insignificant showing in the other three provinces.
This flaw also needs to be addressed by the draft bill to reduce Punjab’s lopsided political advantage in a way that the political interests of the other three provinces are adequately protected. This can be done by making it mandatory for parties to win majority of National Assembly seats in at least three of the four provinces to qualify to form government at the center.
The mainstream politicians seem too content with the substantial increases in the election expenses limits for both National Assembly and provincial assemblies’ seats (to Rs4 million and Rs2m from Rs1.5m and Rs1, respectively) and they also seem too happy that they would not face immediate disqualification for submitting a false statement of election expenses or wealth statement.
The Election Commission according to the draft bill must refer such cases to the session court, which may allow such members to continue their membership until the exhaustion of all appeals. This weakness of the ECP’s powers also conflicts with Section 4(2) of the draft bill, which grants that any direction and order of the Commission shall be treated as it has been given by a high court.
This has transformed the election system itself into what is called the mother of all corruption. In the first place fixing such high limits of election expenses makes it impossible for the less-endowed citizens to contest elections whereby ensuring that the elected houses actually serve as rich-man’s clubs.
Secondly, knowing very well that submitting of false election expenses statements would not create any immediate problems for them, these well-endowed persons invariably indulge in extravagant campaigning, secure in the knowledge that once elected they would be able to more than make up the ‘investment’ by indulging in blatant corruption.
What is equally worrying is that the draft election bill stops short of providing complete independence and authority to the ECP that is needed to ensure an election that is free of government interference. Section 239 of the draft bill is particularly problematic as it enables the Election Commission to “to make rules for carrying out the purposes of this Act,” but only with the approval of the government. The constitution and existing law requires presidential approval for rules, which also compromises the independence of the ECP.
When there is any difficulty in giving effect to any of the provisions of the bill the government will forward such provisions to parliament, and there is no timeframe for such referrals. This provision is in direct conflict with Section 4 (3), which empowers the Commission to take any measure to do anything for carrying out the purposes of this bill “for which no provision or sufficient provision exists”.
The powers of the Commission are further weakened by inconsistencies in the law regarding disqualification of elected Members.
Under Section 53 (1), Returning Officers (ROs) are rendered practically independent, without a supervising higher authority. District Returning Officers (DROs) are subject to the “superintendence, directions and controls” of the Commission, but similar language has not been used for the Returning Officers.
According to Section 194 (c) of the draft bill, a fine of five million rupees and imprisonment up to five years may be awarded to any person who “publishes or communicates … information or data to any other person” “which to his knowledge has been obtained or disclosed in contravention or in breach of the security, secrecy and integrity thereof.” Similar penalty has been prescribed for an employee of the ECP who “publishes or communicates any information or data to any other person” without having the authority. These provisions clearly indicate an effort to deny access to information.
The draft bill also bars access of media, observers and citizens to the scrutiny of candidates during the nomination process, which is a step backwards from the existing laws and compromises the transparency of this critical step in the election process.
The draft bill also fails to impose time requirements on the ECP to make publicly available all of the critical documents: nomination papers, election expense returns by the candidates, election result forms such as polling station vote counts, ballot paper accounts, final consolidation of the result from each constituency, candidate wealth statements.