There has never been an election in Pakistan that has not included rigging at some level. It’s a fact that every Pakistani has come to accept and begrudgingly tolerate, knowing that they are unable to change the system that elects their “representatives” to the corridors of power. However, this is not what democracy is supposed to be.

I am not talking about the idealistic democratic system that is discussed in political science textbooks, because that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. The idealistic democracy is one where every citizen has a vote and is able to hold their elected representative to account. That doesn’t exist in the world’s largest democracy, nor does it exist in the world’s oldest republics. Around the world, lobbyists, special interests and corporations have become the voice of the people through their influence and investments. It has gotten to the point that many in the international lobbyist industry say that the best investment for any corporation is to buy a Congressman. It pays back for a lifetime.

I am talking about a democratic system that is not only implementable, but delivers for the people of Pakistan.  A system that is able to provide properly vetted candidates, intelligent options for the voters and better governance for the nation. A democratic system for Pakistan.

Problems with the electoral process

Before we can discuss the changes that need to be made, we need to understand the shortcomings of the current system. Imran Khan has spent the last 110 plus days telling the nation about the problems, but he has never touched on the real issues with the electoral process in this country. If we listen to Imran, the problem starts and ends with two things: an independent Election Commission and a judiciary that is unafraid to disqualify candidates, even sitting members of parliament. We have seen that is not the case with the current crop of politicians that occupy our corridors of power. We have again heard that the 2013 election was completed with massive rigging conducted by one party. We have heard the record skip and start playing again.

Pakistan’s electoral problems start with the unfair distribution of land resources. When one person is allowed to hold more than 500 acres of agricultural land, they are given the power to control and guide those who work as labor on their lands. The second problem, which is directly tied to the first, is that of improper taxation. When a certain politician can own over 300 acres of prime land in Islamabad and only pay the taxes on the original purchase price, not the current value, this is a problem. When an agriculturalist is allowed a discounted tax rate, while facilitating them to export their crop and force Pakistanis to pay exorbitant prices, this is a problem. And it’s only the start of the situation.

Both problems can be solved permanently with one change in the taxation code – implement a tax code that requires every property and tract of land to be re-assessed every 5 years. Of course, this would mean that the Federal Board of Revenue must be made completely independent of government interference so that politicians could not influence their land valuations, but it is not impossible to achieve. When a landowner (Khan, Chaudhry, wadera or whatever your local vernacular) must pay the tax based on the current value of the land resource, it will force them to either go bankrupt in paying their taxes or sell the land that they can’t afford to pay taxes on. When 2 kanals in Islamabad cost an average of Rs. 5 crore, how is it possible that 300 acres is only worth Rs. 3 crore?

The other major problem with the electoral process is that the Election Commission is not independent. More important than independence is to give the Election Commission the power to form special tribunals to hear cases against politicians, whether they be corrupt, abuse of power or anything else that the people wish to challenge them with and be able to disqualify candidates both prior to an election or after they have taken a seat in any of the parliaments of the country.

The third problem with the electoral process in Pakistan is the lack of resources to verify information provided the Election Commission to contest any seat in the country. This information verification system must include check of tax records, collection of reports from utility companies around the country and the verification of educational documents. Until the Election Commission is given the autonomy to be able to independently verify and question candidates on their own declarations, we will not get a free and fair electoral system.

I make mention of Imran Khan in this article, not because I didn’t appreciate his message, but that he didn’t go far enough to explain how he would change the system. Assuming that a judicial commission had been formed and Imran had proven that every member of the Parliament had won their seat because of rigging, it is still the decision of the Speaker of the relevant Assembly to decided whether the member should be disqualified or not. That is a system that is not likely to produce results and is proven with the recent case of Nawaz Sharif being challenged in the Supreme Court for lying on the floor of the National Assembly.

So where do we start?

First, every parcel, tract, kanal of land must be computerized, verified, re-valuated and taxed before a candidate can be added to the electoral process. The current system gives the candidates, and any who are challenging them, all the power to shape the future course of the nation through forced voting of their laborers. Miangul Aurengzeb, the former Prince of Swat, once said in a political rally that he had 40,000 guaranteed votes in every election. The 40,000 that he was referring to were the people that were forced to work on his lands in Swat. How do you beat that candidate with an honest one?

Once the land reforms are implemented, we must give independence and empowerment to the Election Commission of Pakistan. When the Election Commission Chairman is appointed by a joint decision between the opposition leader and the Prime Minister, they are a servant of two masters, and this is just recently. Before the 18th Amendment, it was just the Prime Minister that appointed the Election Commission Chairman. The Election Commission Chairman should be an advertised post that is filled by the most qualified person of Pakistani origin without the interference or involvement of any political party. It should never be an appointed one again – that is too much power to give politicians that have proven themselves corrupt and incompetent.

The Election Commission must have the ability to independently verify all information and documents submitted by the potential candidate. This would require that the Election Commission be given dedicated computer connections to the FBR, HEC, NADRA and every utility company in Pakistan. They would also require an updated list of every loan that has been written off by public and private sector banks. If any candidate, as per the Constitution of Pakistan, has defaulted on a loan, falsified educational documents (or does not possess any) or has not paid their electricity bill in the last six months, they must be presented before a Judicial Tribunal under the auspices of the Election Commission of Pakistan to explain any lapses that are found. Those who violate the letter and spirit of the Constitution of Pakistan must be disqualified, charged with the relevant crime and find their way to a jail cell and be forced to pay the relevant restitution.

There is one more thing that I would like to see happen in Pakistan’s electoral process. There should be a time bar on how long someone can serve as President/Chairman of a political party. The idea of a lifetime chairperson is undemocratic in its form. It is also undemocratic for the same people to be elected to the Presidency or Chairmanship of a party just because they started the party. That’s not democracy, it’s a dictatorship. Are we, the people of Pakistan, to believe that all the world’s political systems are wrong when they nominate and elect a new leader, but we have it right with the likes of the Sharif brothers, the Zardari clan, Wali Khan’s family and Imran Khan being the only people in their entire political parties to run the party itself for decades at a time?

There must also be a requirement that no one can contest an election if they have not resided in Pakistan for the past two years consecutively. The practice of leaving the country as soon as a government ends because they are no longer in power must end.  To contest in an election, you must stay in the country and live within the system and with the people that you wish to represent.


Lets move on to the actual election process

The current election process in Pakistan is a total of 40 days from the time of the submission of candidate papers to the election itself. 40 days is nowhere near enough time for a candidate to be properly vetted by the Election Commission, the media or the people of Pakistan. You can pretend to be a good person for that long in political rallies. Here’s how the process should be changed.

Candidates must submit their papers for verification six months prior to the election. They are free to campaign but they will not be added to any ballot unless they are deemed clear of all criminal offenses and meet all the requirements of candidacy. Can I just add here that every candidate must have a degree from a recognized school, college or university? Part of the problem that exists with democratic governments is that everyone is allowed to stand in elections, but no one ever checks if they can read or write. How does someone without the ability to read understand the complexity of law making or governance? I know that sounds harsh and unfair but after over 60 years of watching a failed democracy, it’s time we get harsh with those who claim to be our representatives.

Secondly, candidates must actually reside in the constituency from which they are standing. We’re not talking about owning property. We are talking about long-term, primary residences, where the candidate has been known to live for more than three years. Someone whose primary residence is in Lahore can only contest elections from Lahore, and that too from the area where their home is. In the case of those who have multiple homes in a city, they must declare which is their primary residence. It is impossible to claim 11 homes as a primary residence, like a certain Chief Minister does. This will eliminate the current practice of running from more than one constituency (because just owning property or being allowed to file papers does not qualify them to represent an area). It will also allow for more deserving candidates to compete in the elections rather than being sidelined by known party leaders that need to massage their egos by winning in multiple constituencies.

During the six-month period prior to elections, the candidates will be required to participate in debates against their opposing candidates. The generation of political rallies must be brought to an end and there must be a more intelligent conversation between the candidates for any office. Members of the journalist community approved by each candidate involved must moderate these debates. Debates will focus on helping the voting public in each district understand where each candidate stands on the core issues affecting Pakistan.

The Election Commission, with assistance from the political parties, will build information packets for the public and the media that will be distributed via their website and government offices. The information packet will include the following information: 

  • Name of the candidate, education and work history
  • Sources of income must be identified and verified
  • Number of times they have contested a seat and where, along with the number of times they have won
  • Their entire political history naming each commission, each ministry and any other government functionary position must be listed along with the dates
  • The legislations that they have voted on and how they voted must be included as well

These information packets will serve as the political resume for those trying to decide who to vote for, will have an easy non-political document to compare the candidates in their area. It will also give the media a tool to use to question the candidates when they moderate or appear on their channels.

The reason we believe that sources of income are a requirement is because many of our current politicians are living far beyond their means. For example, our current Prime Minister, who lives a multi-billionaire lifestyle, only pays Rs. 5,000 in taxes. In any normal circumstance, this would have disqualified him from standing for elections. All sources of income, foreign and domestic, must be listed and verified before a candidate is allowed to contest in any election. This includes the sources of income of any family members since it is common practice to transfer property and assets into the names of the wife and children to avoid taxation or collection of past debts.

The media must be engaged to assist in the vetting of each candidate. Since all of these candidates will want to appear on their television programs, the media channels must organize conversations where they are able to discuss issues that relate to Pakistan and get the feedback/plans of each candidate. This will help the people eliminate those who will just follow their party leader blindly and those who will actually do something for the betterment of the country.

As a caveat, I would like to see a primary election before the general election so that the fringe candidates that don’t have a real chance of winning in the general election are removed. I do understand that may mean that some constituencies will lose potential candidates that they support, including the leading parties, but it will make the election more effective and efficient to manage. There were some constituencies in Pakistan during the 2013 elections that had 15 people standing for the same seat, some of which only got 5 or 10 votes.

The entire process that I have outlined above is to give Pakistanis the best choices on election day, not the best alternative to what we have today. While some of the recommendations that I have made seem difficult to implement, we have to understand that everything that I am recommending is to clean up the election process so that we no longer have to choose the best of the worst options and then complain for five years about the government we have elected.

Election Day

The hardest part of any election in Pakistan is the day of the election. Most election days are marred with violence, accusations of rigging and cheating. There is only one way to solve this problem. Biometric voting.

With biometric voting machines available around the world, it is quite easy to purchase and connect them with the NADRA database so that each voter would be able to scan their thumbprint and be allowed to vote in their constituency no matter where they are in Pakistan. This facilitates both the voter verification as well as providing a clear record of where a candidate voted. I do believe that many voting machines can also be mounted with video cameras that could be activated when the thumbprint is scanned. This would give the Election Commission two forms of verification – the thumbprint and the photograph of the voter.

Now, you are asking what about voter fraud on election machines. It would be quite difficult for anyone to game the system when they must scan their thumbprint and have their photo taken when voting, but we can also implement an SMS/email system that sends the voter a copy of their ballot so that it can be used for post-election verification.

It all sounds like a huge and difficult system, doesn’t it? I’m sure it will be for the first election, but with each successive election, the process will become easier and more efficient. Think of it this way, no ballot boxes to be stuffed, no claims of wrong ink being used, no chance of extra ballot papers being printed because there are no paper ballots.

The efficiency and effectiveness of the system is that each step is verified by the voters themselves.

Khalid Muhammad is an entrepreneur, published novelist, defense analyst and political strategist