There is no denying the fact that Pakistan’s electoral system is in dire need of an overhaul to address long-standing inefficiencies and deficiencies that continue to cast doubt on the reliability and accuracy of election results. The last general election, for example, was rife with human error, ballot tampering and technological failures. Senate elections were mired in horse trading that resulted in both the government and opposition suffering unexpected losses. Most recently, there was such blatant rigging in the NA-75 Daska by-poll that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), despite severe pressure from various quarters to refrain from doing so, had to call a reelection. Last week’s NA-249 Karachi by-poll has its own set of controversial discrepancies. For obvious reasons, past and present governments have avoided undertaking any meaningful electoral reforms, for they are usually the primary benefactors of this broken system. That the PTI is proposing comprehensive changes to the Election Act 2017, inviting the opposition to be part of the process, is a welcome step towards breaking this trend of tainted elections. Replying to the offer, both the PPP and PML(N) through Bilawal Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif respectively, have pointed out the fundamental problem with the PTI’s plan: it does not address the central issue at hand, that of pre-poll rigging.
A fair amount of political engineering takes place behind the scenes to deliver a certain type of government. The process of using courts to disqualify prominent politicians from office and barring them from contesting elections to ‘clear the field’ is one method. Closer to the polls, electables are convinced, through coercion or promises of better positions in government, to join the favorite party. The remaining gaps are typically filled by allied parties who join the coalition with certain guarantees. Whatever transpires on the day of the election has to be handled and managed by the ECP, which is unfortunately perceived as a toothless institution. Despite its constitutional status and resources, it is unable to punish candidates who break the rules, let alone execute a free and fair election. If the PTI government wants to give election reform an honest shot, it must first eliminate the possibility of certain elements meddling in the electoral process. It should then allow the ECP to do its job by cooperating with it rather than fighting it. Prime Minister Imran Khan wants to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs) instead of paper ballots. That might be part of the solution, but is hardly the right place to start or finish. Much more needs to be done before such a step.