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Art of possible turned into war of attrition

M. Ziauddin

he performance of our political parties has   remained   too    far    from    the ideal since Independence. The ruling political parties have tended to behave like elected dictatorships treating the opposition as criminals and on occasions maligning them as traitors. On the other hand the opposition has tended to challenge the very legitimacy of the ruling parties accusing them of stealing the elections. In Parliament they have tended to filibuster and outside they have resorted to attritional agitation invariably bringing governance to a standstill.

The seemingly mortal political combat that had ensued between the government and the Opposition over the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and i-voting for overseas Pakistanis had forced the former to focus more on criminalizing the opposition rather than on governance. And the opposition has been maligning what it called the ‘selected’ of being incompetent to govern.

Despite political fragmentation, political parties had developed a consensus on electoral reforms in 2017 after three years of rigorous consultations under the aegis of a multi-party parliamentary committee. And the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in Dec 2018 had submitted its reports on pilot tests on I-voting in 35 constituencies and its report on biometric verification machines tested in NA-120.

It is, indeed, unfortunate that neither of the two houses of Parliament took up these reports for discussion in the last 33 months to give directives in this regard to the ECP.

Although the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020 proposes major changes in the process of delimitation, voter registration, priori- ty-listing of women candidates for reserved seats and political party regulations, the public discourse has only focused on the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and overseas voting proposed by Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021.

The proposed amendment is also unclear on      whether      ECP      can      procure

technology/machines that includes built-in facility of voter authentication and verification as provided for in 84(2) of the Elections   Act,             2021. Such technology/machines can compromise the voter secrecy and a voter’s choice may be tracked.

Similarly, the proposed amendment requir- ing the ECP to enable overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote in their country of residence is also strewn with inadequacies. It has not provided any corresponding changes to the election law that may be required to enable potentially 9.5 million overseas Pakistanis to vote.

The amendment does not respond to critical questions such as the responsibility of determination of qualification for overseas voters, particularly Pakistani workers abroad, as provided under Section 94(2) of the Elections Act, 2017; responsibility of their registration as voters and allocation to the constituency i.e. their choice or perma- nent address on National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP); mechanism for ECP to enforce the legal requirement as provided for under Sections 30 (claims and objections) and Sections 37 (verification); mechanism for provisions of electoral rolls to candidates as provided under Section 41 (2), which only contains the addresses of voters where their vote is registered, but in this case the voters will not be residing on those addresses; provisions pertaining to campaigning and expense limits by candi- dates when they will have to campaign overseas; verification and authentication of voters on the election day as required under Section 84 (1); timing of counting of overseas votes whether during preparation of provisional results or during consolidation proceedings; voting time for overseas Pakistanis living in different time zones especially if it involved early/advance voting; treatment of list of overseas voters – one list at the constituency level or marked off at the level of electoral rolls provided at the polling stations just as in case of postal ballots issued; and candidates’ oversight over voting by Pakistanis living abroad.

Any effort to amend the Elections Act, 2017 without a larger political consensus would bring into question the legitimacy of future elections, and may cause political instability that can potentially reverse the process of democratic consolidation in Pakistan.

But for the past few months, the ugly war of words between the government and the opposition had turned into a nasty feud. What was beyond doubt, however, was that extreme polarisation over such an import- ant issue as electoral reforms would weaken the already too fragile foundations of democracy in the country.

What was most unfortunate was that the government had tended to make the ECP controversial as sitting ministers launched blistering attacks on it in the wake of the ECP listing 37 objections to the use of EVMs in the next election. Railways Minis- ter Azam Swati accused its members of taking bribes to rig polls while Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry alleged that the chief election commissioner — whose name was among the government’s suggested nominees to the post — was “a mouthpiece for the opposition”. The ECP rejected the allegations as baseless and issued notices to the ministers to produce evidence to back their claims.

The good news is parliamentary panel has been formed to work on the issue.

The ECP’s feedback would be integral to the discussion; it must have confidence it can conduct free and fair polls under the amendments proposed to the elections law. The objective must be to arrive at comprehensive and far-reaching reform. In any event, decisions must be taken with consensus.

All the political parties in an election must have trust in the process under which it is being held. Otherwise, we will simply have more elections that are contested, with the fallout poisoning the political arena. A working relationship between the government and opposition is essential to legislative work and governance.

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