In 2008, I got an opportunity to work with the Victorian Election Commission, Australia. The task assigned to me (and many other hundreds like me) was to enter the votes casted in various constituencies in a specifically designed database for the 2008 Local Government Elections of Victoria, one of the states of Australia. Let me describe here a few things which I observed while feeding the ballot papers’ results into the computer database. Firstly, candidates and their authorized campaigners were present in the building to oversee the whole election results compilation process.
Secondly, to my surprise, neither the candidates nor their supporters chanted slogans, or had a fight or exchange of bad words with each other. Thirdly, the whole process was very smooth and transparent for the reason that each candidate’s authorized campaigners were allowed to stand beside each data entry operator to better gauge the vote entry process. Fourthly, the Election Commission’ staff was treating all candidates equally. The election results were accepted by all candidates and no complaint of unfairness or rigging were heard from the losing candidates. To me as an outsider to Australian system of governance and voting, the whole process seemed very democratic, free and fair. But then the question arises what is free and fair election process?
An election process is termed as ‘free’ if it does not breach fundamental rights and freedoms such as: freedom of speech, expression, association; freedom to register as a voter/candidate; freedom from violence and freedom of access to the polls by electors, party agents and accredited observers etc. Similarly, the electoral process will be ‘fair’ if all parties, elector and candidates are provided with a level playing field. Other important components which are needed to organize ‘fair’ elections include: a non-partisan electoral commission / organization, equitable treatment of electors, candidates and parties by elections officials, the government, the police, the military and the judiciary, an open and transparent ballot counting process. As a matter of fact, the Australian election process reflects what I have already described as ‘free and fair’.
Since ‘free and fair’ has become an international yard stick to judge the quality of elections anywhere in the world, let us discuss whether the election process in Pakistan is free and fair? Not really, elections in Pakistan are always hallmarked by fraudulent voting and unfairness. The losing political party / groups are always alleging the winning party/group of rigging in elections. Violence and intimidation are common tactics employed to harass the opposing political parties and their electors. Police is deployed to tackle incidents of violence at the polling stations but still due to intolerant culture of political parties such incidents are unavoidable. For counting votes and compilation of results, the same outdated manual counting system is used which lacks transparency. To cite as an example, the case in point is the yesterday’s by-election of PP-111 in Gujrat, where there was a tough contest between PML-N (the ruling party of Punjab) and PML-Q.
As reported in today’s Dawn, The PML-N’s candidate has won the by-election in PP-111 with a very thin margin (3000 votes only). Nevertheless, PML-Q leadership is accusing the ruling party of attacking the women’s polling stations, torturing the presiding officers and also of damaging the polling material. A preliminary report issued by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), an independent election observer group comprising 30 leading civil society organizations, also confirms that Gujrat by-election was marked by fraudulent voting and interference by unauthorized persons particularly police officers appointed at the polling stations. FAFEN observers have also highlighted that the supporters of the contesting candidates were sloganeering and canvassing within the limits of the polling stations, which in reality is a sheer violation of the rules set under the election laws.
FAFEN observers have also pointed out other important shortcomings particularly pertaining to the electoral rolls and use of CNIC for voting. According to the observer group, the same 2008 general elections’ electoral rolls were used in Gujrat by-election. Additionally, voters were allowed to cast vote without the CNIC. It is pertinent to note that this is not the first time FAFEN has underlined massive anomalies involved in elections in Pakistan. The question is whether the responsible government institutions i.e. election commission ever took notice of the observations and recommendations of independent election observer groups such as FAFEN to further improve the electoral process?
A number of reasons can be pronounced about inability of the election commission of Pakistan to take into consideration the recommendations of the independent election observant groups. For instance capacity constraint issues, bureaucratic sluggishness which is the hallmark characteristics of all government departments and impartiality of the election commission itself. Certainly, Election Commission is suffering from capacity constraints issue as most of the funding provided by the international bilateral organizations such as USAID, focuses on providing material support (ballot boxes, security seals) and raising public awareness on vote casting etc.
Similarly, Election Commission’s impartiality has also been questioned time and again by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In a situation like ours where Election Commission is not independent and impartial, should we assume that real democracy or democratic values can be promoted in Pakistan? Critics such as Jennifer Windsor argues that elections alone cannot promote democracy when the existing institutions lack transparency. In such a situation elections in fact become the vehicle for politicians who seek to protect their position and gain access to power. This has happened very frequently in Pakistan in almost all elections. The question is should the government or its institutions or key political parties continue doing business as usual or is this the time that we adopt democratic values of free and fairness and develop a culture to promote real democracy in our country?