In 2014 when Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) long-drawn dharna pushed the government to create a parliamentary committee to oversee electoral reforms, it was lauded as no mean feat. But, as one of the elected opposition parties, it was the least they could do.

The real question is, what has this parliamentary committee, with representation from all political parties that has reportedly met over 100 times, achieved in the last two years? Perhaps, PTI’s push would have meant a lot more if they had spread their efforts towards electoral reforms over the last two years, rather than expend them all before the process even began.

Tahir Mehdi of Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that focuses on governance, suggests that lack of momentum may have been because no one on the committee is sincere about the changes. “Everyone who is part of the committee is in a position of power, albeit at different levels. But they wouldn’t want to impose drastic reforms that would completely alter the balance of power,” says Mehdi.

It would, however, be unfair to say that the committee has achieved nothing in the last two years. The one major change they successfully implemented was a constitutional amendment on May 17, 2016 which redefined the qualifications of the chief election commissioner (CEC) and the members of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The reason the bill was rushed was because four members of the ECP were retiring in June 2016. The National Assembly passed the bill within a few minutes of its introduction, not a moment was taken to debate this amendment to the Constitution.

One wonders why the committee didn’t take this action a little earlier.

When the parliamentary committee was formed, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) extended some recommendations. One of which was that the committee’s meetings be open to ordinary citizens and the media; this demand was rejected. According to Shafqat Mahmood, a PTI member of parliament who is part of the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, the political party representatives have no problem in giving access to the media, “the decision was likely made by the PML-N minister leading the committee.”

“We have a clear cut position on the machines: technology will not automatically produce fair elections. It took India 20 years to develop a system that could support the machine and we think we can do it in 5 years?” asks Muddassir Rizvi, Fafen’s Head of Programs.

Although other resolutions of the parliamentary committee will not be public until they agree on and submit their bill to the parliament, some of the changes they are debating have made the news. The first and most hotly contested is the introduction of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Furkan Ali, a partner at a prestigious law firm, worked closely with Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, the former CEC in the 2013 Election. “It was Arif Alvi of the PTI who pushed hardest for the electronic machines and although they’ve had to cross much red tape to import them, it seems that they are here and this will benefit the election process,” says Ali.

He is right in that the machines have arrived. But they are facing a lot of criticism. As far back as November 2014, the parliamentary committee was informed by ECP’s Director General Information Technology Khizar Aziz that the software used by EVMs could be manipulated to affect the results and that they were just as prone, if not more, to fraud as traditional voting methods.

Fafen has also opposed the machines since their idea was first introduced. “We have a clear cut position on the machines: technology will not automatically produce fair elections. It took India 20 years to develop a system that could support the machine and we think we can do it in 5 years?” asks Muddassir Rizvi, Fafen’s Head of Programs.

However, even till February 2016, the Minister for Climate Change Zahid Hamid, who heads the all-important eight-member subcommittee of the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, announced that after months of wrangling, his committee had directed the ECP to procure electronic voting machines and that “If the experiment is successful, next general elections will be held through electronic voting.”

PTI’s Mahmood shares this optimism about the machines. He says the employment of EVM as well as automated biometric identification is both major reforms the committee is working for.

It would be pertinent here to mention that the use of EVMs was adopted and then dropped by countries such as Ireland, Germany and Netherlands because of the lack of paper trail it leaves behind. Even in the US, in the aftermath of the most recent election, one of the demands protesters have set forth is that the country should revert back to traditional methods of vote casting because it increases transparency and trust.

Another major reform the committee is working towards is increasing access for overseas Pakistanis to cast their vote. Some experimentation has also been conducted for gathering these votes as well employing automated biometric identification; however, as of yet all experiments have been unsuccessful.

For the election process to be transparent, it only makes sense that the process of electoral reforms also be transparent. But Rizvi complains the only information ordinary citizens have received about the reform package, so far, is secondary and unofficial.

While the parliamentary committee is keeping its package of reforms secret, earlier this month the ECP drew up and released a code of conduct for the next election. Points in the conduct such as the fact that political parties will not be allowed to put up banners or billboards of any size during campaign season and that political parties shall not use vehicles to transport voters to polling stations, nor are they allowed to campaign by arousing parochial and sectarian feelings will make the process of election fairer.

Furthermore, the ECP has also begun hiring and training polling staff. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the president of Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat), tells TNS that trainings are held every three months. “They now have their own academy where they train their staff of over 1,000; this trained staff will then be responsible for training returning officers closer to the elections,” says Mehboob. He explains that till the last election, there was no training; returning officers would be handed pamphlets with instructions. “So even if they receive one full day of training now, there will be a drastic improvement,” says Mehboob.

Mehboob does not think that the electoral reforms will bring about any major changes, or any shift in the balance of power. Since the reforms are not going to suggest a structural change, they will only define the election process in more detail, any upcoming change will lie in the hands of the ECP.

One is then left wondering, if the reforms aren’t bringing about much change, why are they being kept so secret?

One reason may be that the committee is hardly concerned proposing actual amendments that are vital in improving the electoral process. Mehdi suggests that two most urgent reforms need to be made: the first is that political parties must notify the ECP about the identity of their polling agents at each polling station. This will increase the polling agent’s accountability, they will stay back till the end of election day to collect the statement of count, rather than running off as soon as they realise that their candidate has lost. “If all political parties have every single statement of count from every single polling station, it will be easier to cross check and spot rigging,” says Mehdi.

However, PTI’s Mahmood says that is absolutely impossible. “Polling agents are changing till the very last minute, so to expect a political party to take this decision 10 day in advance is ridiculous,” he says.

The second suggestion Mehdi makes is that parties must address the lack of participation of women, as voters as well as candidates, in the election. Because of the process of reserved seats for women, women are disincentivised to participate in the election process. This is a problem that has been discussed in the parliamentary committee but, according to Mahmood, the committee was unable to reach any kind of decision on this matter.

Consequential or not, change is always a difficult thing. The fact that creating systems of voting for overseas Pakistanis and the use of EVMs and biometric machines is all being conducted in an experimental way only adds to the delay in the process of reforms.

No one is sure when the reforms will be finally be presented before the National Assembly.

The post Towards a fair election appeared first on TNS - The News on Sunday.

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