Maintain democracy or switch to dictatorship: that is what is at stake in the elections.Elections play a very decisive and important role in a democratic country. Despite their importance, the electoral history of Pakistan remains blemished. The country has been witnessing one episode after another of rigged and massively flawed elections since its inception. The General Elections of 2013 were no exception to the failure to hold free, fair and transparent elections in the country.

Nevertheless, these elections proved pivotalto identifying the major flaws in the electoral system of Pakistan. The general public has become more aware and conscious of the power of their vote; either being stolen or going to the person of their choice. The post-2013 General Elections scenario was full of allegations, blames of rigging and questions on the neutrality of the elections.

Ultimately it led to the opposition parties to turn to street protests, court petitions and even “dharnas” in which they demanded the ruling party to step down. As they considered their mandate stolen and not reflective of the true will of the people. The whole situation ended up with an inquiry by the Judicial Commission and its report into the credibility of the elections. The report has clearly identified and acknowledged massive shortcomings in the electoral process of the country. Resultantly, the country was promised something that it remained deprived of for years: Electoral Reforms.

Before I propose a plan of action for a functional and better performing electoral system of Pakistan, it would be equally important to discuss those factors which make the country’s electoral system inadequate, underperforming and asymmetric.

Independent and robust public institutions remain a pre-requisite to a true democratic culture. The performance of Election Commission of Pakistan has been very poor and negligible as an important public institution. It has failed to perform those duties and functions which it ought to be performing according to the Article 218(3) of the Constitution. The Judicial Commission’s report found massive irregularities and malpractices on the behalf of the Election Commission. The arrangements it made in conducting the General Elections 2013 were insufficient and overall, the Elections were a failure of the Election Commission.

Representative of the People’s Act 1976 & Rules 1977 require that the candidates can spend up to Rs. 1.5 million and 1 million for each National and Provincial Assembly seat respectively. In the General Elections 2013,a perception was raised that candidates were spending in eight figures to win the seats. Undoubtedly, it is a clear violation of the law and against the real spirit of the election.

Election rules, code of conduct, state machinery and a neutral caretaker setup are meant to provide a level playing field to the all contesting parties in the elections. But unfortunately, nobody really bothers about these rules and restrictions. Police, bureaucracy,public money and public transport are misusedagainst the opposition parties. The administrative machinery finds it very easy to deliver its verdict in favor of ruling party. In a nutshell, riches take the wing and manipulate the law in their favor.

 Formulation of the electoral rolls and voting registers mainly depend on the exact voters of a particular area. Further, these electoral rolls should be updated according to the newly registered voters and exclusion of deceased persons. Woefully, in the last elections there was no such coordination between NADRA and the Election Commission. In 2013 General Elections, 4.12% voters were excess of the registered voters. Going on with the damage, so were the large number of extra ballot papers which could easily be misused.

There are some other factors responsible for the weakness of our electoral process such asnon-reliance on modern technology like Electronic Voting Machines and CCTV Cameras, poor security arrangements on polling day, voters’ ignorance of their rights and duties as important parts of the democratic culture and non-inclusion of overseas Pakistanis in the electoral process. However, the electoral system of Pakistan can be made flawless by implementing pragmatic steps which are discussed in the following paragraphs:

Firstly, an independent and functional Election Commission lies at the heart of a better performing electoral system. The appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan must be done constitutionally. The appointment of the Election Commission members should be made with the mutual consensus of opposition parties. Unbiased, unprejudiced and non-partisan role of the ECP can surely make the system effective at large.

Secondly, the implementation of election rules and code of conduct remain significantly important in order to achieve a successful electoral system in the country. Such enforcement of laws would lead to putting an end to malpractices such as extravagant spending on and bribing of voters. Furthermore, the activities of the political parties and their candidates would be in compliance with law which would ensure impartiality and fairness in the system as a whole.

Thirdly, NADRA has to be very efficient and in direct coordination with the ECP if the country wants a robust electoral system. NADRA must update the electoral rolls and provide all necessary information to the ECP which can help to make all arrangements according to the number of registered voters in the country. Printing of ballot papers and training of election staff should be ensured accordingly.

Fourthly, the time has come to move towards technology instead of outdated paper work. Electronic Voting Machines are being widely used in the world for vote casting. These are very easy to use and chances of misuse are very low. Vote counting and drafting the results would be very easy for the authorities if votes are cast digitally. Technological advancement of the electoral system would surely enhance the overall effectiveness of the system.

Fifthly, significantly important security arrangements remain a key to a successful electoral system. Civil law enforcement agencies along with the Army and Rangers should work with the ECP in full coordination on polling day.

Further, on the pattern of the Indian electoral system, elections can be conducted on separate days in all provinces in order to ensure the security, better management, fairness and impartiality of elections. Along with distinctive days for polling, assigning different days for vote counting and result announcement can also help the ECP to work more effectively and efficiently.

Lastly, there is also a dire need to educate our voters in order to get a healthy democratic culture in the country. Voters need to realize the responsibility and the role which their vote can play for the country. They should be aware of the vote casting procedure, too. Voters’ awareness campaigns through print and electronic media are wise tools for making them sensible enough and aware of their rights as voters.

To conclude, voting is the expression of our commitment to ourselves, one another, the democracy and the country itself. The electoral history of Pakistan does not present a rosy picture where people could use their right of vote freely. Their mandate has always beenmisplaced either by systematic flaws or those who were at helm of the affairs, and in the end they are told that their vote has been taken by someone else through rigging. One should have the right to vote for the person of one’s choice. Electoral malpractices have to be stopped if we want an effective electoral system in the country. The equation is very simple here. Improve the electoral system, improve the democratic culture.

The time is ripe for electoral reforms in the country. A reformed electoral system would be a win for the people, for democracy and, ultimately, for Pakistan.