Pakistan has adopted several important electoral reforms in its colonial and national history, but more measures are needed to ensure transparent elections.
In the current scenario, electoral laws and practices in Pakistan need to be reformed so as to ensure that (1) each polling station announces its result by 11:00pm, without any delay or interference, and through flawless use of polling agents; (2) the right to vote in home constituencies is extended to overseas Pakistanis, including dual citizens, through Pakistan’s embassies abroad acting as polling stations; (3) Senators are directly elected so as to eliminate trade in tickets and votes on Senate seats; and (4) intra-party elections are held every five years in a credible manner so as to curb dynastic rule and personality cults.
Let’s deconstruct these four issues separately.
Section 59(3) of the Election Act 2017 provides, “As far as practicable, not more than twelve hundred voters shall be assigned to a polling station and not more than three hundred voters shall be assigned to a polling booth, and reasons for any deviation shall be recorded in writing.”
Moreover, Section 90 of the Act states that the Presiding Officer shall count the votes immediately after the close of the poll in the presence of polling agents. And immediately after the count, the Presiding Officer is required to prepare a Result of the Count and publish both Result of the Count and Ballot Paper Account by affixing copies at a conspicuous place at the polling station for public inspection.
One may surmise that if it took ten seconds to verify and count a vote, then six votes may be counted in a minute, 360 votes in an hour and 1,440 votes in four hours. Assuming that polling stops at 6pm after allowing those people to cast their votes who were present inside the polling station at 5pm, and assuming that a dinner or prayer break of one hour was allowed, the result of every polling station should be ready and published latest by 11pm.
Indeed, in the normal course, as in the recent cantonment board elections and the famous re-poll in Daska, the results of all polling stations had come in by 11:00pm and the provisional Consolidated Statement of Results announced by the Returning Officer by 01:00am.
However, this fairly simple and swift procedure is often not followed in practice. Presiding Officers sometimes do not allow polling agents to witness the counting, or leave the polling station without announcing the result and then take all night to reach the Returning Officer. All these practices were witnessed in several important constituencies during the 2018 General Elections and were most recently observed during the famous Daska by-poll.
The previous government of PTI had introduced, through amendment in the Election Act 2017, the use of Electronic Voting Machines as the solution. But in light of the myriad reservations expressed by the Election Commission and other political parties, the PDM government has now reversed this step.
It is worth mentioning that most Western democracies do not favour the use of EVMs, except in limited cases, and they are expressly banned in Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland. Moreover, a recent study by researchers at MIT “argues that there is a class of security flaws that so gravely undermine election integrity — and thereby, democratic legitimacy — as to outweigh countervailing interests, and that electronic voting is more vulnerable to such failures than paper-based alternatives.”
In case of secret balloting, there is no receipt, bank, or counter-party. Although the machine may issue a receipt as to the fact of voting, it cannot issue a receipt as to the candidate in whose favour the vote has been cast.
The problem with electronic voting may be easily explained by analogy with online financial transactions. When one makes an online payment through one’s debit or credit card, one immediately gets a receipt and two other parties immediately record and verify the transaction – one’s bank and one’s payee. Any wrongdoing can thus be easily and promptly detected. However, in case of secret balloting, there is no receipt, bank, or counter-party. Although the machine may issue a receipt as to the fact of voting, it cannot issue a receipt as to the candidate in whose favour the vote has been cast. Thus, there is absolutely no guarantee that the machine will always correctly record the candidate in whose favour the vote has been cast, leaving it open to attacks by miscreants inside and outside the country as well as routine malfunctions.
Therefore, instead of replacing traditional methods of vote stealing with a modern one, the Election Act should be amended to ensure that re-poll is held at the polling stations where polling agents are not present during the vote-counting, or if the results are not announced at the polling station level by 11:00pm. In other words, competent, dedicated and alert polling agents are the key to holding free and fair elections.
2- Right to vote for overseas Pakistanis
There is currently no specific statutory mechanism in place for overseas Pakistanis to enable them to cast their vote in their home constituencies in Pakistan. The PTI government had amended the Election Act to provide for an unconditional right of vote to overseas Pakistan, but the amendment was not accompanied by a specific voting mechanism and has now been repealed by the PDM government.
Since voting is a birth-right of every citizen of Pakistan, it cannot be taken away due to logistical inconvenience or suspicion of disloyalty due to dual nationality. Moreover, overseas voting is not an impossible or novel ideal. According to a 2007 study by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and Federal Electoral Institute of Mexico, absentee voting was first allowed by the US State of Wisconsin in 1862 to its soldiers fighting the civil war, and 115 countries currently allow their overseas citizens to vote in domestic elections.
Therefore, while it may not be feasible to allow electronic voting (due to risks of cyber-attacks and fraud) or international postal ballots (due to non-assurance of integrity of ballots through Pakistan Post), it does seem feasible that Pakistani embassies in foreign countries should facilitate voting by overseas Pakistan by:
- Preparing lists of all Pakistani voters present in their respective countries and allow them to send in postal ballots to them from across the country;
- These postal ballots should be opened and counted in the embassies on Election Day in the presence of polling agents nominated by contesting political parties; and
- The results of the count may then be communicated to the Election Commission of Pakistan for consolidation with the vote count of home constituencies to which these overseas Pakistanis belong.
3- Senate elections
Currently, Senate elections are marred by allegations of selling of tickets by party leaders and selling of votes.. These allegations proved to be true when, in March 2021, Hafeez Sheikh lost the senate vote as a candidate from Islamabad despite having the support of the majority coalition in the National Assembly. This shock defeat forced Prime Minister Imran Khan to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly, the first of its kind in Pakistan’s history.
All these embarrassing allegations and incidents take place because of a primary reason: indirect elections. The Constitution of 1973 states that senators are to be elected through secret balloting but based on proportional representation of different political parties in the National and Provincial Assemblies. This means that party leaders give tickets to senators and expect their elected party members to vote in favour of these ticket-holders. However, secret balloting allows the voters to disobey the instructions of their party leaders. That is why, the PTI says, former PM Imran Khan proposed open balloting as the solution to the problem of vote selling. However, this solution allows all power to be concentrated in the hands of party leaders. In other words, the current scheme of indirect elections allows both the party leader to sell the senate tickets and party members to sell their votes, while open balloting would only allow the former and make the latter impossible.
It is worth mentioning that the United States also used indirect elections to the Senate as per its original Constitution adopted in 1787, but eventually, due to similar allegation of sale of tickets and votes, adopted direct elections through the 17th amendment adopted in 1913.
Therefore, the Constitution must be amended to provide for direct elections to the Senate, as is the case with the National Assembly. The people of Pakistan must be trusted to responsibly elect their Senators, just like they are trusted to responsibly elect their MNAs. Moreover, it must be remembered that the true and essential purpose of the Senate is to provide a federal legislative house with equal provincial representation (as in the United States) and not an elitist “upper” house of legislature (as in the United Kingdom).
Section 208 of the Election Act 2017 requires intra-party elections every five years, but does not provide any reliable enforcement mechanism. Consequently, intra-party elections are either not held at all or held after more than five years. Moreover, no political party has a reliable intra-party election system. For example, in the most recent intra-party elections of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Nawaz Sharif were elected unopposed as the respective Chairman and President of their political parties Similarly, in the most recent intra-party election of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), held after significant delay, Imran Khan was elected as Chairman where voters could only vote for one of the two panels of candidates and the polling process continued for two days.
Absence of credible and timely intra-party elections raises questions about democratic credentials of political parties, including allegations of dynastic rule in parties like PPP and PML-N and personality cults in parties like PTI. In the US, intra-party elections for presidential nominees are contested as hotly and watched around the world almost as closely as the presidential election.
Therefore, Election Act 2017 should be amended to provide a reliable enforcement mechanism. For example, it may be provided that a one-day delay in holding intra-party elections would automatically disqualify the elected party leader, and, similarly, a one-year delay in holding intra-party elections would automatically disqualify all elected representatives of a political party.
The above four electoral reforms, if adopted before the next general elections, would secure Pakistan’s democratic future for at least 50 years.