Ignoring the real issues – Khalid Bhatti

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The PTI government has passed a bill of electoral reforms. The electoral reforms proposed by the government encompass 49 amendments and deletions from the Elections Act 2017. The most contentious ones are the use of Electronic Voting Machines; extending the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis; delimitations of constituencies on the basis of votes instead of population; and enhanced role of NADRA in preparing the voting lists.

The opposition parties and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) are opposing some proposals in the electoral reform package. After reviewing the electoral reforms bill passed by the National Assembly, the ECP has raised objections on half of the 62 clauses of the amendments.

The government is claiming that its electoral reforms aim to make the election process free, fair and transparent. But it seems to be in a hurry to implement its planned reforms without developing a consensus and taking on board both the opposition and the ECP. It is especially keen to introduce EVMs, which it claims will solve the issues of rigging, manipulation and political engineering.

The same claim was made by the PML-N government when it introduced the Election Act 2017. It was hoped that the Election Act 2017 would make the electoral process and the counting of votes free and fair for competing candidates. But that enthusiasm was short-lived. There were serious allegations of political engineering and manipulation after the 2018 general elections.

The failure of the RTS and the delayed results raised many questions about the 2018 elections. Almost all the major opposition parties raised allegations of rigging in General Elections 2018.

Democratic governments gain legitimacy through free, fair and transparent elections. The will of the people expressed freely through authentic elections is the foundation for the authority of a democratic government. Transparency in the election process – from campaigning to election results – is a must for credible elections. A flawed and rigged election system raises questions on the legitimacy of an elected government.

Unfortunately, the debate on electoral reforms has narrowly focused on EVMs when the fact is that the use of machines will not fundamentally change the nature of our electoral system.

Nobody can oppose efforts to make the electoral process at every level clean, free and transparent. But to do so, we need radical reforms in the electoral system. One law or amendment in the constitution will not stop corruption in electoral politics. The whole system needs to be overhauled to fix the bigger problems of rigging, horse-trading, political engineering, manipulation and interference.

Like the 2017 election reforms, many important issues have been left unattended in the PTI’s election reforms package. A lot needs to be done in Pakistan to make the election process reliable.

There are four major problems in the election process in Pakistan. First and most important is non-political interference and the use of state machinery to rig and manipulate the elections to change the outcome. The empowerment of the ECP and experiment of neutral interim governments have failed to stop this interference. The experience of the last two general elections have shown that unelected powers call the shots in the interim period.

The last two general elections have also shown the power of the electronic media in shaping political opinion and views. The media played a key role in the manipulation of voters in the last elections when the media should not be used to malign and target a particular party or leader during the election campaign. It is difficult to provide an equal playing field to all the contesting parties when the media becomes biased.

The second most important issue is the use of money in elections. Wealthy candidates spend millions in their constituencies to win elections. Even political parties prefer candidates who can spend huge amounts of money in the election campaign. Instead of ideology, loyalty and commitment, wealth has become an important qualification to get a party ticket.

This is a much more serious issue. Wealth is not just used during elections but also to enter into politics. The fact is that electoral politics, whether it is at the union council level or within national and provincial constituencies, is plagued by money, influence and power. Electoral politics has been made so expensive that even political workers belonging to the middle class find it hard to compete with wealthy candidates. No serious effort has been made to reduce the role of money.

The third issue is to provide an atmosphere in which poor peasants, women, the rural poor and sections of the working class can exercise their democratic right without any fear of repression and undue influence.

Many poor voters are still not free to cast their votes without any fear or pressure in the 21st century. Block voting is still common in rural areas where a whole tribe or clan decides to vote for a certain candidate. Women voters also come under family and social pressure to cast their ballots. Most of them cannot exercise their democratic right of vote freely and without any pressure.

The fourth issue is the capture of electoral politics by the elite. Working-class people have been pushed aside by the elite. There is hardly any political representation of working people and the poor. This needs to be changed. Not only electoral politics but the whole system has been rigged in favour of the rich and powerful.

The present social, economic and political structure paved the way for capitalists, big landlords and tribal chiefs to dominate and manipulate electoral politics. Without radical reforms and fundamental changes in the social, economic and political structures, the working classes cannot get a level-playing field to compete with the elite.

Parliamentary politics is then just the democratic continuation of the elite’s crushing domination and power. Feudal lords, capitalists, big businessmen and tribal chiefs own the means of production and wealth. On the basis of their economic power and social position, they dominate electoral politics. Pakistan’s democracy is still an elitist democracy. People’s democracy – or rather a participatory democracy – is still a distant dream for the people.