Earlier this year, in the wake of the Judicial Commission’s damning indictment of the ECP’s management of the 2013 general elections, the government convened a parliamentary committee tasked with formulating legislation that could be enacted to strengthen the electoral process in Pakistan. Headed by the Interior Minister, the committee claims to have completed most of its work, although details on precisely what it has discussed, and what proposals and recommendations it will be making, have not been forthcoming. While the committee has ostensibly taken the input of various political stakeholders into account, given how its membership includes legislators from all the major parties, it’s lack of engagement with civil society groups and the general public has prompted the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) to accuse it of presiding over a reform process that lacks transparency and also misses out on potentially constructive contributions from non-parliamentary sources.
The opaque activities of the committee can be juxtaposed with the frequent public pronouncements being made by the ECP itself. This week, the ECP announced its intention to pilot a scheme whereby presiding offers managing by-elections could make use of smartphones to quickly and efficiently relay vote counts while also recording and disseminating evidence of electoral malpractice perpetrated by candidates and their supporters on polling day. Independently of its merits, this suggestion is one that serves as an example of the ECP’s long-running obsession with technological solutions to the problem of electoral management; through its emphasis on biometric voter identification, online voting, and other other electronic wizardry, the ECP appears to be convinced that the ills plaguing Pakistan’s electoral system can be easily solved by simply using the right hardware and software. Seen through this lens, the problem is thus reduced to picking the right technical solution and then addressing any logistical constraints that might affect its deployment. To the extent that any information manages to trickle out of the parliamentary committee on electoral reform, it seems clear that it endorses the ECP’s faith in technology.
At the outset it is important to clarify that technology can and should be used to improve the electoral process. Evidence from around the world shows that technological interventions can streamline elections and also introduce greater transparency and accountability. However, to assume that this, in and of itself, would be sufficient to rectify Pakistan’s electoral problems would be incorrect and symptomatic of a fixation on the polling process while disregarding the broader social and political context within which electoral contestation takes place and, indeed, technology is used.
Amidst all the techno-babble it becomes easy to forget that there are larger, more meaningful debates about institutional reform and change that need to be had in order to strengthen not only the electoral process, but democracy itself in Pakistan. For example, there has been little visible attention paid to the question of introducing an element of proportional representation to the political arena. Other than ensuring the election of a legislature that would be more reflective of the preferences of the electorate, proportional representation would also reduce the barriers to entry, imposed by the first-past-the-post system, that keep smaller and newer parties from gaining a foothold in government. Particularly at the local level, proportional representation would introduce greater competition and accountability to the electoral process.
Additionally, given the constant conflict over the status of voter lists and constituency boundaries, it is fundamentally important that a new census be conducted in order to get a better and more accurate picture of the electorate’s demographic composition and geographic location. This, in tandem with greater power and autonomy for the ECP, could go a long way towards addressing some of the shortcomings identified by the Judicial Commission.
None of this, however, addresses the simple fact that no matter what technologies might be used, electoral politics in Pakistan remains dominated by a very small elite that has been able to use its influence and position to manipulate the levers of Pakistan’s patron-client politics. All the mainstream political parties are dependant on the service these brokers to mobilise votes, and none are likely to initiate the kind of radical change that would be required to break the power of this political oligarchy. In a context where over 900 lawmakers across Pakistan have reportedly failed to disclose their assets to the ECP, and where there is little to no interest in discussing campaign finance reform, it is clear that elections, and the business of politics, will remain the preserve of the rich. Similarly, while banning government transfers before polls may be a laudable step, it serves only to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of electoral rigging; as long as individual candidates and politicians retain control over postings and transfers post-election, and can use familial and personal connections to call in favours from the bureaucracy and police, precious little can be done to address how the politician-bureaucracy nexus rigs polls before and after election day, rather than on the day itself.
Machines and computers can reduce mistakes, speed things up, and offer a greater degree of transparency than the woeful electoral system that is currently in place. This does not mean, however, that electronic voting machines will save Pakistani democracy. Instead, it is imperative to continue raising issues pertaining to the quality rather than the form, of democracy in this country.