Saturday, June 9, 2012

Daily Times Editorial June 10, 2012

Free and fair elections There are some in Pakistan who are beginning to wonder whether, in the middle of the complex ructions afflicting the polity, the scheduled elections will take place. Although Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has reiterated that the elections will be held according to schedule, apprehensions are growing. Irrespective of the fate of the elections scheduled to take place by 2013 latest, it is heartening to note that for the present and future electoral process, the Supreme Court (SC) has directed the Election Commission (EC) in a judgement on a petition seeking reduction in elections expenditures to devise a strategy to ensure free and fair elections. The petition was moved by the Workers Party Pakistan. Eight major political parties participated in the proceedings, but the ruling PPP stayed away. The SC has, amongst other things in the 87-page judgement, questioned the first past the post (FPTP) system, which our parliamentary democracy has been based on in conformity with the British system from which our practices are derived. In the SC’s view, the FPTP system, which declares the winner in an electoral contest the candidate who gets the largest number of votes irrespective of the percentage of votes that represents, violates the principle of majority. Taking its cue from a widely accepted practice in many countries that require a run off election between the first and second biggest vote getting candidates in order to determine who, if any of them, can get 50 percent or more of the votes cast in the run off, the SC has suggested to the EC to explore ways and means to introduce appropriate steps such as a run off election in the event that in the first round of voting, no candidate garners 50 percent. Also, the SC would like a column inserted on the ballot paper that offers voters the option of ‘none of the above’ in case they do not wish to vote for any of the listed candidates. The SC would like voting to be declared compulsory, therefore the ‘none of the above’ column would spare voters having to tick any candidate they were less than enthusiastic about. The contentious issue of the preparation/revision of the electoral rolls is dealt with in the judgement. This is an issue that has seen the SC at loggerheads with the EC in recent days on the delays in completing this all-important task. The SC would like this process completed ‘immediately’ through credible and independent agencies, if necessary by going door to door. The SC thinks this task could be expeditiously and transparently performed by inducting the army and the Frontier Corps (FC). Although the consideration of having the necessary manpower for the huge task may underlie the SC’s recommendation to induct the army and the FC, this is likely to raise the hackles of those who recall the role of the military in our history and even the revelations in the Asghar Khan case of behind the scenes manipulation of elections by the military and intelligence agencies. It may be wiser therefore, to seek some other way to complete this task and keep the military/paramilitary out of the picture and confined to their mandated tasks. The SC wants the EC to undertake monitoring of the election expenses of all candidates, including the use of private transport to take voters to the polling stations, the use of ‘parchis’ (notes from the powerful that facilitate candidates and/or voters), and the setting up of candidates’ camps near polling stations (from which they can influence the balloting process). The rules already require the EC to monitor election expenses, but this has been practised more in the breach in our history. The real issue is the creation of an empowered and independent EC that can carry through the sacred task of ensuring the sanctity of the ballot. For that, the behind closed doors talks going on between the major political parties on a new, consensus election commissioner, may hold the key.

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