The process of electoral reforms

Courtesy:- Malik Muhammad Ashraf

The initiative of the PML-N government to forestall the prospects of horse-trading in the Senate elections by changing the mode of voting from secret ballot to ‘show of hands’ and bringing a constitutional amendment in this regard, has failed to elicit required support despite convening of the meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary parties by the prime minister and the forceful plea made by him for a collective effort to end the despicable practice of vote buying in the senate elections.

The government found the PTI to be a willing and staunch supporter of the proposal. However the PPP, JUI-F and ANP refused to cooperate with the government on the issue and instead decided to forge broader cooperation in the senate elections under the existing system of voting and during the post-election scenario. The argument preferred by the PPP and endorsed by other parties for not changing the mode of voting was that the matter should be referred to the Electoral Reforms Committee for making it part of the comprehensive constitutional package.

During the debate on the issue political analysts, the intelligentsia and media commentators have been expressing their views on the motivations behind the PML-N’s initiative supported by the PTI and those opposing it as well as the likely positive and negative consequences of changing the mode of voting for the senate elections. My considered view is that whatever the motivations of the parties for and against the proposed amendment, what one ought to look at is the outcome of the proposed step. As far as the senate elections go, it is a proven fact that in Pakistan there is a well-entrenched political culture of vote buying in the senate elections and echoes of horse-trading have invariably resonated whenever they have been held. 

The mode of secret balloting unfortunately has been instrumental in the continuation and perpetuation of this undesirable phenomenon. Changing the mode of election from secret ballot to show of hands would have surely gone a long way in checking and eradicating this cancer from our political landscape besides ensuring transparency and preserving the integrity of the legislators. So from this perspective the contention of the PML-N for introducing the 22nd Amendment was beyond reproach, notwithstanding the motivations ascribed to the initiative by its critics.

It may have worked in favour of the PML-N and PTI in the coming elections, but there is no denying the fact that it would have also benefitted all the political parties in the long run besides helping to set the pace for electoral reforms. The parties opposed to the proposal undoubtedly have shown subservience to political expediencies and immediate political gains rather than caring for the future of the democratic and political culture in this country.

The proposal for voting by show of hands is also not out of this world. There are many countries where this practice is in vogue. Therefore, the argument by detractors of the proposal that it was in breach of the principle of secrecy of the ballot and the freedom of the voter to make a free choice according to his conscience stands on flimsy grounds as far as voting by legislators for choosing senators is concerned. Our legislators, by becoming members of a political party, have known loyalties – a choice made conscientiously. They also owe allegiance to both the party manifesto and party discipline. So cheating the party and breaching party discipline becomes a betrayal of the free choice made by them by joining a political party.

From the moral perspective also it is incumbent upon them to show loyalty to the party on whose ticket they have been elected. Going by these touchstones and a transcendent cause of ensuring transparency in the elections, voting by show of hands does make sense. So why not try to fix this malady when everybody acknowledges the existence of horse-trading?

The argument in favour of secret ballot is quite relevant in the case of ordinary voters voting to elect members of parliament or their representatives in the local bodies, to save and protect them against retribution by those candidates for whom they do not vote and who get elected by gaining majority votes from a particular constituency. But in case of legislators using a delegated authority to elect members of the upper house, the situation is entirely different. 

Further, the people also have the right to know how their chosen representatives are using the delegated authority and for what cause. The only way they can know that is when the legislators use those powers in a transparent manner. Balloting by show of hands can also encourage a culture of bold choices by the legislators; a trait that makes a good and righteous legislator. The step proposed by the PML-N was insignificant in the context of the overall drastic reforms the system needs but it certainly was a first positive step in the right direction. The system can best be reformed through an evolutionary process. Had the parties agreed to this initial reform, the ball would have been set rolling in the desired direction.

Now that the proposal has been shelved by the government for obvious reasons, it is incumbent upon proponents of electoral reform like the PTI and PML-N to pursue the issue more vigorously in the committee formed for electoral reforms. For the PTI to be able to play a significant role in this regard, the party will have to return to parliament, which is the proper forum for bringing about a change in the electoral system as well as the system of governance. It is encouraging to note that the PTI has shown some flexibility on issues it has been agitating about. It has also given positive signals on extending a hand of cooperation to the government in the implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism. It has also given signals on a return to parliament.

That is the right course to adopt. The PTI has been mandated to sit in parliament like other parties and work for promoting the wellbeing of the people. In a democratic polity the government and the opposition have a complimentary role in managing the affairs of the state which they must perform with honesty and with the sole purpose of serving the national interest. Had the PTI not resorted to politics of agitation and sat in parliament, the process of electoral reforms would have been put on the right track by now. But as they say it is never too late.

The PTI must return to parliament and be part of the committee for electoral reforms, which unfortunately could not achieve much headway due to the long absence of its members. There is now a national consensus on electoral reforms and changing the way we elect our legislators. The PPP, the JUI-F and other parliamentary parties also owe it to the people to support the efforts of the government in devising an electoral system that ensures transparency and eliminates the chances of rigging and horse-trading.

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