Free and fair elections. How? | By Haroon Khawaja 


Free and fair elections. How?

MODERN democracies around the world adopt elections as a mechanism to choose the people to hold public office.

Successful countries ensure that the process of elections brings the best of their society to govern their affairs.

It is the quality of leaders produced through the electioneering process that determines the prosperity of a country’s subjects.

The results of successive elections in Pakistan show the inability of the electioneering process to bring the best and most deserving people of Pakistan to run its affairs.

To redress this issue, Parliament adopted a motion in June 2014 as a result of which a Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms came into existence in July 2014.

The committee was adequately represented by all political parties in Parliament and was headed by (the then) Senator Ishaq Dar.

After holding 26 meetings (apart from the 93 meetings of its sub-committee) and after drafting 10 progress reports, it submitted its final report in July 2017.

Sadly, the outcome lacked the qualitative reform that the electioneering process needed in order to improve the outcome defined by the quality of candidates taking part in the electoral process.

The current run for ratings in media does not allow space for “decent” and “non-controversial” parties.

The unholy collaboration between power and money in Pakistani politics has made the electoral participation beyond the reach of competent, educated and credible candidates from middle class.

People with money and power continue to rule the roost knowing fully well that they cannot be challenged through the criteria of competence and merit.

It is, therefore, imperative to break the shackles of “power and money” in Pakistani politics in order to provide a level playing field for all parties in line with the guarantee of equal rights provided by Article 25 of the Constitution.

Legislation apart, there are some important steps, in line with the Constitution of Pakistan, that the Election Commission of Pakistan can take to bring about a sea change in the outcome of the 2023 general elections and to make these “free and fair”.

The Election Commission will, hopefully, give serious thought to the following suggestions (that do not require any legislation):

1. In order to increase turnout and to assure the voters that their vote matters, an option of “None of the above” (NOTA) should be introduced in the ballot papers.

All constituencies where NOTA gets highest votes should hold a re-election among completely new candidates.

Astonishingly, this option was to be in place in 2013 elections, but for some unexplained reasons was withdrawn at the last moment.

This option is also being successfully practiced in India, Bangladesh, Greece, Spain and other countries in the world.

2. All posts of provincial secretaries, DCs as well as DPOs should be reshuffled by officers from a different province.

This will substantially reduce the role of bureaucracy in providing undue advantage to any specific party or candidate.

3. All banners, posters, stickers, flyers, flags etc should be banned completely. This is where candidates spend a sizeable amount of their expense and, hence, one who has more money is able to project himself better than the one (perhaps better qualified) who is short of funds.

This ban would also:

a. Automatically curtail election spending

b. Provide a comparatively level playing field for all candidates (whether wealthy or not)

c. Encourage a lot of deserving candidates who do not come forward thinking that they cannot afford to contest in the current climate

4. Candidates should be banned from spending money on transport to gather their voters for being conveyed to the polling stations.

This will not only further curtail the extraordinary funds spent on electioneering (which gives the moneyed candidate an unfair edge over a middle class candidate) but will also significantly reduce the chances of clashes between supporters of opposing candidates.

In remote areas, the Election Commission can sponsor transport to facilitate the voters.

5. Commercial advertising (electronic and print media, radio and billboards) by individual candidates should be completely banned.

The parties may be allowed to advertise within a certain budget (say Rs 200 million per party) that should be monitored by ECP through PEMRA and PTA.

All TV/radio channels should be required to submit details of election advertisement to ensure candidates/parties are not violating rules.

6. Media should be mandated to allocate equal time to all parties. Coverage of jalsas of parties should be banned during election campaign.

Instead, ECP-approved debates should be initiated on all channels under a code of conduct that ensures equality and fairness.

These debates should be monitored by the ECP through a complaint mechanism system (i.e. a participant or one who has not been invited should have the option to lodge a complaint to the ECP)

7. Articles 62/63 of the constitution should be strictly implemented BEFORE a candidate is declared eligible.

A detailed review of these articles reveals 19 out of the 24 requirements relate mainly to verification of declared credentials of candidates, which can be easily verified through various departments/wings of the government.

The remaining 5 (relating to good character and Islamic injunctions) can be implemented through a standard framework put in place by the ECP to be enforced across the board equally on all hopeful candidates (so that the process remains transparent and non-controversial).

In this framework, the constituents can be given 7 days to object to a candidate’s character and Islamic credentials.

Such a framework should only be applicable for elections 2023. Any clarifications or amendments for future should be left to the next Parliament to decide (based on the outcome of implementation of the above ideas).

With the infighting and lack of meaningful legislation in Parliament, it is unlikely that we would see any out-of-the-box solutions forthcoming from the National Assembly to improve the electioneering process.

However, with the above suggestions (if implemented by the ECP) the 2023 elections are likely to succeed in bringing the best of our society to the corridors of power (rather than the opposite as is being delivered by the current structure).

Hopefully, this communication is able to generate some interest and the 2023 elections become the cornerstone of the process of change in Pakistan.

—The writer is the Chairman of Pakistan Freedom Movement Party.

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