In democratic dispensation the formation and change of government occurs through elections. In view of their pivotal importance the democratic countries try to make sure that the elections are held in a free, fair and transparent manner. This makes it imperative to ensure the electoral system and the laws in regards to the conduct of elections are geared to bringing credibility to the whole process.

In the well established democracies, controversies and complaints in regards to rigging and other malpractices that hinder free and fair elections, are not as serious and extensive in scope as in the nascent democracies or where the democratic process is disrupted frequently. In Pakistan, unfortunately, the elections have invariably been controversial with the losing parties complaining about systematic rigging and stealing of their mandate. The controversy over rigging in the 1977 general elections even led to a movement against the government by the opposition parties (PNA) that eventually paved the way for imposition of martial law, disrupting the democratic process for well over a decade.

The 2013 general elections, which brought the PML-N government in Power were no exception to the traditional non-acceptance of election results. Though almost all the parties did complain about rigging of elections in favour of the PML-N but it was PTI, the new entrant on the political landscape of the country, which agitated the issue more vigorously. It alleged systematic rigging in which the Election Commission of Pakistan along with other state institutions, former CJ, a media house and a number of government functionaries were accused of complicity. Demands were made for the setting up of a judicial commission to probe systematic rigging and reforms in the electoral laws including the reconstitution of the ECP.

It must be acknowledged and appreciated that the government readily conceded to the demands of PTI. The judicial Commission, as is known, refuted and charges of systematic rigging legitimizing the mandate of the PML-N government. In regards to electoral reforms the PML-N government rightly decided to form a fully representative parliamentary committee to review the existing laws, make recommendations for any amendment in them or the enactment of new laws. The idea was to give them national ownership so that nobody could object to the fairness and transparency of the elections in the future. That step was in conformity with the policy of the government to hammer out consensus on crucial national issues and the culture of political accommodation that it had introduced.

The Prime Minister requested the Speaker of the National Assembly on June 10, 2014 to constitute a parliamentary committee having representation from treasury and opposition benches from both houses of the parliament, suggesting that the committee may consider the reports of the last committee and any other proposals submitted by any party, organization or individual, including suggestions to amend the constitutional provisions relating to the caretaker government and the introduction of latest technology to ensure fair polling. Consequently upon the adoption of motions by the National Assembly and Senate in the same month, a 33-member parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms came into being. Since its formation up till May, 2016, the committee held 18 meetings while the sub-committee formed to share the work load met 57 times to deliberate on the issues at hand and to firm up its recommendations.

The electoral reforms committee is understood to have completed 80% of its work and firmed up a number of recommendations and also completed full review of the six existing election laws. In the light of the recommendations of the committee, the mode of appointment of the Chief Election commissioner and the members of the Commission and their eligibility criteria has been changed and these changes notified through 22nd constitutional amendment with the consensus of all the political parties and unanimous passage by the National Assembly and the Senate. According to the changed law, in addition to retired judges of Supreme Court or High Court, retired senior bureaucrats or senior civil servants and technocrats will also be eligible for appointment as Chief Election commissioner or a member.

With a view to ensure continuity of the Commission, instead of all member retiring simultaneously, two of the members shall retire every two and a half years. For the first term, the commission will draw a lot to determine which of the two shall retire after the first two and half years. The amendment also stipulates that delimitation of the constituencies and preparation of electoral rolls for the elections to local governments shall also be the responsibility of the election commission. Before the amendment the Chief Election Commissioner was appointed by the President but now the Prime Minister is required to forward three names to a parliamentary committee for confirmation of one of them after consultation with the opposition leader.

The committee has also finalised a number of recommendations regarding reforms in electoral laws and other related issues awaiting legislation in due course of time which include: giving full fiscal autonomy to the Election commission of Pakistan; Unification of all the existing electoral laws; giving legal cover to the powers of ECP to use contempt of court proceedings against any official failing to comply with the orders of the Commission; automatic registration of citizens as voters who after turning 18 get their computerized National Identity Cards; making it obligatory on secretary of every union council to inform NADRA and the ECP about every death in the union council so they can remove the person’s name from the voters list; procurement of electronic voting machines by ECP till September; vetting of proposed changes in the Representation of Peoples Act 1976, relating to conduct of elections.

In regards to FATA and Safron, it has been recommended that a 40-member legislative and executive council be directly elected from the agencies with reserved seats for women, which should form electoral college for the elections of Senators from the area. The committee has also recommended holding of an early census in the country. A sub-committee headed by Arif Alvi of PTI has also been tasked to submit proposals on voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, use of electronic voting machines and bio-metric verification of the votes.

From the facts it is quite evident that the electoral reforms committee has made comprehensive recommendations in regards to ensuring free, fair and transparent elections as well as taking care of the inadequacies identified by the stakeholders. The government indeed has been very forthcoming and supportive of these deliberations and made sure that the work was completed as quickly as possible, to settle the issue once for all. In fact ever since its inception it has gone out of the way to accommodate the views of the opponents on national issues and building consensus. Since the steps and reforms proposed by the Committee have a national ownership one tends to hope that the future elections will not become disputed like the previous ones.