Crookedness of electoral system – 06 Sep 2022

“Those sitting in parliament must not make self-serving legislation,” said Justice Umar Ata Bandial, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, on 18th August. He might have said it in a different context, but his statement echoes agonising feelings of every Pakistani citizen. But that is just a half-truth. The irony is the legislations that guarantee equality for every citizen and socio-economic and civil rights have most often been shamelessly violated by and compromised in favour of the powerful. Consider male versus female, employer versus employee, feudal versus peasant, and military versus civilian. And then there are articles of the Constitution which have never been implemented, and there are laws which are nakedly crooked. The ongoing political crisis seems to be the result of that, as it has exposed serious faultiness and absurdities of the system.

Article 223 of the Constitution is a glaring example of self-serving mindset. It allows individuals to contest election simultaneously from all National Assembly constituencies and from all provincial assembly seats. And the aspirants under section 61(2) of the Elections Act 2017 don’t need to pay nomination fee for every seat. Just one fee is enough. In 1985, the practice was banned through an amendment. But it was reversed in 1988. And since then, it has shown its ugliness in every election.

By filing nomination papers to contest all the nine by-elections of 25th September, Imran Khan has exposed intentionally or unintentionally the absurdity of article 223. And it has triggered some debate in the country. While Khan’s fans believe it is a great opportunity for their leader to prove his popularity, his opponents find it silly.

Here is a brief history of this infamous law. ZA Bhutto was perhaps the first leader who had started this trend in GE1970, when he contested from four constituencies simultaneously. Since 1988 almost every party leader thought it necessary to follow the trend. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif contested from three and four seats respectively in 1988. Imran Khan joined the club in 1997. But absurdity of this law hit the ‘conscience’ of many when Imran Khan announced contesting from all the nine NA seats. And to me it has created an opportunity to repeal this law.

Let’s also examine the economic impact of this practice. In the wake of GE2018 and GE2013, in total more than 80 by-elections were held. The nation spent about Rs25 billion on GE18 or on average Rs30 million per NA constituency. And Rs120 million were spent on holding 80 by-elections – an absurdity of the ‘self-serving’ mindset of elites. Politically too, this practice is extremely damaging to our democracy. It seriously causes trust deficit. For many years, every candidate contesting election from multiple seats promises to the electorates of each constituency that he would keep his seat. After winning from multiple seats, he vacates all except one. A country where public trust in politicians is already very low, its leaders must not be indulged in blatant lies.

Consider this. If a candidate files nomination papers from 133 (50%) National Assembly seats simultaneously and 10 others file nomination papers, say from 10 seats each, and no one contests against each other. And suppose everyone wins 50% of the contested seats, meaning that 11 politicians have grabbed 116/266 or 43.6% of the total NA seats. Since, under the law a candidate can keep only one seat, the winners will have to resign from all seats, except one. This means by-elections (or a mini-general election) will have to take place within 60 days on 105 seats again. No assembly can elect a PM, Speaker or Deputy Speaker till the house is complete. In other words, the country would be put on hold for two months.

Also think. Pakistan is perhaps the only country where two different methods are used to calculate turnout – one for women and the other for general turnout. For general turnout, we divide the polled votes with registered votes. On the other hand, to calculate women’s turnout, number of women’s votes are divided with polled votes. Under section 9(1) of the act if women’s turnout is less than 10% of the total polled votes in a constituency, ECP may declare results void. This section is an act of crookedness to inflate women’s turnout to avoid re-polling.

Also guess: which country’s election commission could violate principle of equality of vote at such a scale while delimiting constituencies? Section 20(3) of the Elections Act 2017 allows ECP only in a very special situation to ignore 10% plus and minus formula of population. For GE2018, about eight constituencies had more than 1.1 million populations which is far higher than 10% allowance. For instance, NA-35 Bannu had 1.2 million population while NA37 Tank had just 0.4 million. Similarly, wild variations between population and registered voters across constituencies exist? For GE18, share of voters in population of nearly 50 constituencies was between 60% and 90%. For instance, in Pothohar region voters’ share in population was 80%, while in Quetta, Tharparkar, and some Karachi constituencies it was less than 30%. Overall, in more than two dozen constituencies voters’ share in population was as low as 20% to 40%. Strangely enough, no party took the above-mentioned idiocies seriously. And sadly, the institutions who are supposed to be the custodian of rule of law and good behaviour care little. These wild variations are blatant violation of the fundamental principle of equality of vote.

Crookedness of the electoral legislation is aplenty. Since minimum turnout is not fixed in our elections act, a candidate could become MP by obtaining just 2-3% of the registered votes and a party could form a government by obtaining just 18% of the registered votes. No wonder no government ever had support of more than 8% of the total population. A parliament whose 20% MPs have lesser margin of victory than the invalid ballots and the country whose 60% ballots went to waste as they have no representation can’t be considered democratic.

Moreover, in early April more than 130 MPs of PTI had resigned from the National Assembly. Five months later, only 11 resignations have been accepted. Under which law the Speaker has been making delays, and under which law has he accepted resignations of 11 MPs and not of the rest? The conduct of the Speaker appears to be in violation of article 64 of the Constitution that “A member of parliament may, by writing under his hand addressed to the speaker resign his seat, and thereupon his seat shall become vacant.” Are we living under rule of law or under whimsical rule of elite?

According to Adam Bonica and Michael McFaul “there is a consensus among political scientists that democracies perform better when more people vote.” Pakistan has one of the lowest turnouts in the world. Reasons are mentioned above but in the words of the honourable Chief Justice, ‘self-serving’ mindset is the core factor. Only people’s pressure can change that.

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