In any country, even in well-established democracies, the legal framework and administrative processes for elections need to be seen as organic, requiring regular review and modification. This is not only to ensure compliance with international standards and obligations. It also reflects a broader political need to engage in continuous efforts to sustain confidence in the efficacy of the democratic system by making sure electoral processes are responsive and inclusive, and are aligned with the expectations of all electoral stakeholders.
In Pakistan, despite the differences, there is recognition among stakeholders, local and international, that electoral reforms are required. The European Union Election Observer Mission, in its 2013 General Elections report, noted that “Fundamental problems remain with the legal framework and the implementation of certain provisions, leaving future processes vulnerable to malpractice and Pakistan not fully meeting its obligations to provide citizens the right and opportunity to stand as candidates and to vote.” In a nationwide survey of 4,535 people by UNDP, 49 percent were not satisfied with the existing electoral system while 55 percent said electoral reforms are necessary.
The rhetoric on what needs to be done has to be transformed into coherent and judicious action. A first step should be a cross-party agreement for a new census, followed by the fresh delimitation of constituencies to ensure, to the extent possible, that the population in all electoral constituencies is roughly equal in size.
Whatever the outcome of the current political crisis, all political leaders should acknowledge that holding another election without a new census, and without addressing weaknesses in the legal and administrative framework, is not in Pakistan’s national interest. In fact, it would risk jeopardizing Pakistan’s hard won democratic gains. An opportunity was missed before the last elections to move beyond piece-meal reforms and implement measures required to ensure compliance with international obligations such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Pakistan ratified in April 2010. A window of opportunity now exists for political leaders to come together and complete the unfinished business of electoral reform.
The EU Election Observation Mission made 50 recommendations to improve the election process, drawing attention to the critical legislative role that the Parliament must play in order to ensure that future elections are credible, transparent and inclusive. In particular, 17 recommendations were made for strengthening the electoral legislative framework to ensure that Pakistan citizens have the right and effective opportunity to exercise their political and civic rights as spelled out in the international legal instruments ratified by Pakistan.
The formation of a Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms, of representatives of all major political parties, offers a platform to seize this opportunity and develop an agenda addressing the grievances and aspiration of all stakeholders, including citizens. Equally significant is that the formation of a Special Committee asserts the primacy of parliament in the electoral reform process.
For meaningful progress, all political parties need to acknowledge that electoral reform requires extensive dialogue, research and public consultation. Therefore, steps should be taken to extend the tenure of the Parliament Committee for at least one year, if not more. It will take time to develop a reform agenda that reflects cross-party consensus as well as broader societal perspectives on electoral reform. So how broad should the reform agenda be – Must it focus just on legal and administrative aspects of elections, or should it also address the political context in which elections take place?
In a series of seminars UNDP has held over the past three months across all four provinces with civil society, academia, youth and women representatives, a recurrent theme has been the need for electoral reform to be a holistic process that tackles issues undermining the credibility of the electoral system. In particular, representatives called for urgent measures to increase the number of women candidates and for a democratic selection process of candidates nominated by political parties.
Some problems will be easier to identify and fix – such as raising the current threshold for candidate expenses – but others are more technical and require considerable research and public debate to ensure that proposed solutions do not inadvertently make a problem worse. For instance, very few countries use Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), partly due to cost but primarily because of concerns that EVMs have a negative impact on the fundamental criterion for a credible election – transparency. But, EVMs also improve the accuracy and speed of counting and transmitting results. So introduction of EVMs, or other electoral technologies, must be based on a clear assessment of perceived benefits and potential risks.
Finally, from our experience in electoral reform in dozens of countries around the world, successful implementation of electoral reform is conditioned by two factors: sustained political commitment from all parties and an electoral management body possessing the ability and authority to be the vanguard of the implementation process. In Pakistan, electoral reforms, will count for very little unless the Election Commission is given full independence and sufficient resources to exert its authority over all aspects of electoral administration and to ensure reforms are properly implemented