Towards real electoral reforms

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Democracy needs more than Qadri’s selective gimmicks

“That’s all folks!” was the brilliant way in which this newspaper heralded the end of the Tahirul Qadri’s (TuQ) four-day circus outside the parliament. Amidst rumours of coups and Qadri proclaiming deadlines for the dissolution of the assemblies, it was fast becoming clear that he had been unable to wield any critical street power and was fast becoming merely a nuisance.

The great farce of the so-called agreement was that it called for the implementation of that which was already agreed. One of the lines towed by Qadri was to cap electoral spending and implement a certain Supreme Court judgment passed on 8 June, 2012. The judgment marks the recommendations of the SC to an attempt by the left wing Workers Party Pakistan (WPP) to seek electoral reform within the system.

The fundamental concerns of the petition were two-fold: one, can every individual contest an election and, two, can every voter exercise his freewill when casting his vote? Towards this end the SC judgment asks the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to implement a number of fundamental changes in the electoral setup, including replacing the ‘first past the post’ system with ‘run off’ elections, adding a ‘none of the above’ option in the voting options and implementing compulsory voting.

While one may argue that such an attempt to reformulate the electoral structure of Pakistan should have been attempted within the parliament or through street power, the petition in itself is an admission that such is not possible without fundamentally reforming the electoral system. It goes without saying that none of these were either implemented by the ECP or followed up by the SC as the main concern for both became preparing revised voter lists.

The petition’s plea to set and enforce caps on election spending were opposed by all mainstream parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), for whom electioneering goes in sync with doling out petty patronage. The golden rules to understand an election are two-fold. One, a political party’s funding sources determine the interests it serves in the National and Provincial Assemblies. Two, a candidate’s funding sources determine the interests they shall serve at constituency level. The recent – and almost forgotten – controversy over which parties were funded by property tycoon Malik Riaz should be taken as a marker.

In this context, while the debate for the declaration of the assets of candidates has a place, the real debate should be over revealing the sources of candidate/party funding. Of course, this is something even the great ‘asset declarer’ Imran Khan fears. When asked by journalist Saleem Safi to reveal some of the main sources for funding the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s October 2011 ‘Tsunami’ rally in Lahore, Khan insisted he was not at liberty to disclose such. A similar approach is followed by all mainstream political parties. However, in light of the Mehrangate case, it appears even more essential that political parties be open about their funding and there be a record of where each rupee came from and where it was spent.

The agreement to test each candidate through Article 62 and Article 63 of the Constitution of Pakistan, both rotten legacies of the Zia era, is rather cynical. The conditions of being “sadiq and amin,” “fulfilling all Islamic injunctions” and “opposing the ideology of Pakistan” are vague and anti-democratic. These are conditions that do not yield any practicable testing of candidates. Rather the more practicable declaration of sources of party and election campaign funding, both open and accessible to the public, should be better measures of an honest and transparent election.

The SC had also accepted the demand to introduce a ‘no candidate’ vote to add to voter’s choice. Coupled with the requirement to implement ‘compulsory voting’ and ‘run off’ elections until a candidate receives an absolute majority, the SC judgment showed willingness, in principle, for further empowering the peoples of Pakistan.

The one positive step from the Qadri-government agreement was that Qadri’s slogans for a role for the army and judiciary in the interim setup were not agreed upon. This is the first time, post the Mehrangate revelations, that an election is going ahead without direct or indirect military interference. It is important that it be let me. The ECP must be allowed to strengthen itself and use the constitutional powers it already enjoys.

One cannot argue a democracy exists if each citizen is not capable of exercising their right to campaign and elect representatives in an equal playing field. Qadri’s proposed agreement with the government, if implemented, shall tend towards the creation of a more unequal, exclusive playing field. The SC judgment on the WPP petition has more egalitarian tendencies but it is also an empty shell without the people of Pakistan being involved in the implementation of the proposed electoral reforms at the level of each constituency and polling booth.

The hope is that the SC will push ahead with the implementation of the 8 June judgment in true spirit before the expected dissolution of the assemblies on 16 March. More important will be that voters and potential candidates are communicated the changes proposed beforehand to ensure that the next general election is more democratic than before.

However elusive the promise of people’s democracy appears to be, the implementation of the SC judgment shall bring the dream one step closer to fulfillment.

The writer is the General

Secretary (Lahore) for the Awami Workers Party. He is also a journalist and a researcher.