After a history of irregularities in the electoral exercise, we seem to have lost touch with the spirit of electoral reforms, focusing only on procedural interventions to ensure transparent elections. Our concern about procedural shortcomings is not without reason.
I personally witnessed several irregularities in elections at the local level during the 1990s. I remember joining a colleague to be a poll worker for another colleague who contested an election for the provincial assembly of NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). We were placed in the substantive position of one of the candidates expected to win; our candidate was not among them. After the lunch break, there was a huge uproar outside. We were told that we had to leave the polling place because a candidate wanted to make sure that all the votes on the list were in his favor and that the polling staff colluded.
At first I resisted the pressure, but for the weapons I left the polling station with my colleague. This is first-hand testimony. I also witnessed other types of rigging, some of which are still practiced. These include the failure of election officials to certify the vote count, counting in camera, and the destruction of votes cast for a popular candidate. In one instance, nearly 10,000 votes were double-stamped in a Karachi constituency to alter the result.
Such examples lend weight to the importance of electoral reforms to eliminate operational and procedural problems, but there are other aspects that need to be considered as well to strengthen democratic standards and establish true democracy based on our realities on the ground.
The effort should be to establish the importance of the vote. According to Joshua A Douglas of the University of Kentucky, “Voting is the fundamental concept of our entire democratic structure. We consider voting a fundamental right – the most fundamental – in our democracy. When a group of citizens collectively elects its representatives, it affirms the idea that we govern ourselves by free choice. An individual’s right to vote binds that person to our social order, even if that person chooses not to exercise that right. The vote represents the beginning; everything else in our democracy follows the right to vote. Participation is more than just a value. It is a fundamental virtue of our democracy.
It is indeed frustrating for the people to see their votes go in vain as was the case in previous elections. In 2018, the PTI received around 32% of the vote and the traditional opposition almost 42%. The rest of the votes were cast for less popular parties that got no representation in parliament. Therefore, we must find ways to eliminate general voter distress through electoral reforms for inclusive governments.
The effort should be to establish the importance of the vote. According to Joshua A Douglas of the University of Kentucky, “Voting is the fundamental concept of our entire democratic structure. We consider voting a fundamental right – the most fundamental – in our democracy.”
It is important that all factions of society are represented in parliament. This should include popular groups and parties in parts of Balochistan, the recently merged tribal districts of KP, South Punjab and sectarian and ethnic groups that have never had a say in national politics. It is important to develop a system that assimilates all these components of our society.
The current electoral system does not even make the Senate more representative of the provinces. The very purpose of the Upper House was to ensure equitable representation of the provinces, but the mechanism has failed to accommodate all the communities in the provinces because the members who go to the provincial assemblies on the basis of majority votes elect the members of the Senate.
We have a decades-long history of extremism resulting primarily from the exclusion of small groups from the mainstream because of their specific ethnic or sectarian approaches. These groups keep spreading their opinions. It’s probably one of the good things about democracy that everyone is allowed to live with their thoughts and preferences.
The existence and local prevalence of these parties and clusters cannot be denied. Their exclusion from the corridors of power allowed foreign elements to pursue their agendas in the country. Our establishment has remained busy inventing counter-narratives to curb foreign interventions. The most effective strategy is probably to ensure the inclusion of small parties and groups in mainstream democratic processes through electoral reforms. They cannot be eliminated using existing policies.
Considering these aspects of the problem, it is appropriate to suggest an electoral system based on proportional representation. This can likely provide a cure for several deep rooted ills in our electoral landscape. This can ensure that every vote counts and eliminate extremism from politics and society. It can also encourage coalition building and collaboration, to improve turnout and reduce voter apathy.
Moving to proportional representation will require extensive brainstorming to determine the most appropriate type of electoral mechanism. In a closed list system, voters have no say in the selection of candidates. This may not be an appropriate option in our context. The idea that voters only vote for one party and that the party then draws up the list of elected candidates can be seen as a new form of totalitarianism.
An open party list system allows voters to influence the order in which party candidates will be elected. Preferential voting offers voters the possibility of ranking their candidates in an order and also allows the transfer of votes to other constituencies. A mixed system offers voters the opportunity to elect the representative of their constituency and to vote for their preferred political party.
This is, indeed, an issue that requires attention and scholarly thought to bring about electoral reforms in Pakistan. No system is without limits. Proportional representation is also subject to several challenges, including opaque compromises, political deadlocks, unstable governments, and reduced accountability to voters. Therefore, we must act with caution to maintain the spirit of electoral reforms for the benefit and prosperity of all stakeholders.
The author is an Associate Professor of Management Science and Head of Center for Islamic Finance at COMSATS University (CUI) Lahore Campus.It can be attached to drabdussattar @cuilahore.edu.pk