Fair, free and transparent elections are an essential feature of a democratic political system. They establish the legitimacy of the system and constitute an effective tool to ascertain the will of the people.

Under the Constitution of Pakistan, the Election Commission of Pakistan has been vested with the mandate to “organize and conduct election and to make such arrangements as are necessary to ensure that the election is conducted honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law, and that corrupt practices are guarded against”.

In principle, the Election Commission of Pakistan is empowered with financial and administrative autonomy. Constitutionally, the Commissioner’s tenure is secure for three years. According to article 215(2), he or she cannot be removed from office except in the manner provided for the removal of a judge in the Constitution, i.e. through the Supreme Judicial Council.

The need of electoral reforms cannot be explained in any better way than narrating how elections in Pakistan have always been marred with mistrust and controversy. Accusations of rigging in the 1977 elections against PPP led to widespread rioting and eventually take-over by General Zia-ul-Haq. Between 1988 and 1999, governments were dismissed with alarming regularity while intelligence agencies and the military brazenly interfered in politics. Elections of 1988 and 1990 were marked by controversies of ISI involvement in the electoral process. Although elections in 1993 and1997 were relatively less controversial and declared free and fair by international observers, political parties who lost insisted there had been electoral interference.

The army was accused of engineering the election outcome in 2002 in order to secure victory of the Pro-Musharraf PML Q. According to the South Asian Non-governmental Election Observer Mission Report, changes introduced in the legal structure “constrained the holding of free and fair elections”. The report stated that the degree qualification requirements and delimitation of constituencies led to controversial decisions, which undermined the credibility of the elections.

Lately the judicial Commission of Pakistan has recorded the failings of the Commission in its detailed report.

The violations and issues highlighted during the elections of 2013 included widespread and visible breach of campaign finance limits; postings and transfers of executive and judicial officials through the election process; documented violations of voting and counting processes; typographical and arithmetical errors (intentional or unintentional) in documentation and consolidation of results; absence of a swift election-complaint handling mechanism; an abysmally high number of votes (1.5 million) rejected and not counted.

After the elections, parliamentary committee was formed to undertake the process of electoral reforms. The 33member committee, comprising members of all parties in proportion to their representation in the parliament, were tasked with the job make recommendations to hold free, fair and transparent elections in the future. There are 11 members from the Senate and 22 members from National Assembly with 19 members representing the ruling alliance while 14 from the opposition parties. In all some 16 parliamentary parties have representation in the committee with some of the parties having nominal representation in the parliament, having only one or two members. But the work of the committee could not achieve something substantial because of non-cooperation of PTI. Now when the Judicial Commission has demolished the PTI’s allegations, it should join hands with other political parties to push through electoral reforms to ensure transparency in the electoral process. The following areas require attention of the reform committee:

One, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) needs to be empowered to exercise its constitutional authority over the government entities to ensure they do not get involved in electoral processes without specific direction from the ECP, and if found guilty, the ECP can suspend any public functionary who, during an election, fails to comply with its directives, despite notice.

Two, the appointment of the members of the election commission and the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) should be made through broad consultation and it should not be a requirement that the members of the election commission are judges, sitting or retired.

Three, legal and procedural reforms are required to improve the quality of voting and counting processes such as printing unique marks on ballots and secure features specific to each constituency to deter fake ballots and to minimize conditions that may wilfully be created that lead to rejection of votes.

Four, the display of the draft electoral rolls should be improved. The rolls should be easily accessible for all voters to ascertain that they are duly registered and to know the location of their polling station well ahead of election day. The draft and final rolls should be available to all political parties as part of their legitimate observation of the electoral process.

Five, candidacy in more than one constituency should be disallowed. Candidates should not be allowed to contest elections in more than one constituency.

Six, in view of the highlights of the Judicial Commission report, the ECP should evaluate its organizational design on all levels, including field structure. In particular it should dedicate more resources to the legal counsel, training and complaint units. The ECP should have a comprehensive capacity building program for its staff. It should be ongoing and encompass international best practices for election administration.

All the stakeholders in the reform process must realize that electoral reforms are an on-going process instead of an on-off event.

The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Law from the University of Oxford.