Pakistan’s dysfunctional electoral system has hampered democratic development, political stability and the rule of law; major electoral reforms would bolster a still fragile democratic transition.
Reforming Pakistan’s Electoral System, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines an electoral system with a troubled history of widespread rigging and fraud, facilitated by the civil-military bureaucracy, and identifies measures to make electoral institutions independent, impartial and effective.
“Rigged elections yielded unrepresentative parliaments that rubber-stamped extensive constitutional and political reforms to centralise power with the military and to empower its civilian allies, including Islamist parties”, says Samina Ahmed, Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director. “The government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and its parliamentary opposition cannot afford to postpone implementing major electoral reforms to ensure a credible, peaceful political transition after the general elections, due in 2013”.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which already lacked independence, impartiality and competence, was further crippled under General Pervez Musharraf’s eight-year rule. Government-appointed chief election commissioners overlooked blatant electoral fraud at the local and national levels. Voters lists were highly inaccurate, disenfranchising millions; polling procedures were routinely manipulated; and accountability mechanisms for election officials, candidates and political parties ineffective. Corrupt and dysfunctional election tribunals proved incapable of resolving disputes.
The current parliament has repealed the constitutional distortions introduced by the previous military regime, and reinforced parliamentary democracy with new provisions, such as strengthening the ECP. It must urgently follow through and build on these reforms. It should grant the ECP complete financial autonomy and ensure that all federal and provincial executive authorities assist it in enforcing the electoral code of conduct as required by law.
The ECP too should take immediate steps to address the many internal weaknesses that hamper its ability to oversee credible elections. It should strengthen the accountability of voting processes, electoral officials and electoral candidates; improve voter registration such as through computerised electoral rolls; and enhance the infrastructure and human resources available to electoral institutions.
The international community should support the ECP, and engage the parliament and political parties in their reform efforts, making clear that the integrity of the electoral process requires not just technical proficiency but also a conducive political environment. With an interventionist military bent on shaping the political order to its liking, the mainstream political parties, particularly the PPP and its main opposition, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, must make electoral reform a priority.
“The leadership on both sides of the political divide should realise that flawed elections undermine civilian governments and political parties more than anyone else”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “Failure to ensure that the next transfer of power takes place through free, fair, transparent and democratic elections will embolden extremist groups, as well as provide the military with an opportunity to undermine if not oust the civilian leadership, as it did after the 1977 polls”.