Friday Jan 27, 2023
After observing flaws in the recently held local government (LG) polls in Sindh and analysing its adverse fallout on the political actors of the country, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) on Friday called upon the political parties to immediately initiate a comprehensive dialogue on addressing the weaknesses in the existing legal framework for the upcoming general elections.
In a statement, FAFEN said that unless the political parties set aside their differences for upholding democracy and protecting its integrity through free, fair, and transparent elections, the country will continue to be embroiled in political instability having adverse effects on the already-fragile economy.
The statement suggesting reforms comes as the recently conducted Sindh LG polls — held on January 15 — witnessed wide-ranging allegations by major political parties regarding riggings and unprecedented delays in the results.
FAFEN also observed the massive polarisation on the issue of the electoral process among the political parties and considered it contradictory to the basic principles of democracy as they are damaging the belief of the masses in the system.
"With only seven months left of the incumbent National Assembly (NA), FAFEN considers it to be an opportune time for the political parties to make necessary changes to the electoral framework that can guarantee free, fair, transparent, and inclusive elections", said the electoral watchdog.
For the upcoming general elections, the watchdog suggested the formation of a cross-chamber multi-party parliamentary committee.
It said that the parties need to decide on the modus operandi for facilitating voting by overseas Pakistanis, either through postal ballot or through the reservation of special seats for Pakistanis living abroad.
While suggesting the improvement in the role of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), FAFEN added that equally important will be legal measures to bind the ECP to scrutinise results before the notification of the winners as a prerequisite for the integrity of the election outcome as well as to minimize the post-election litigation.
FAFEN went on to highlight the increasingly important role of social media in relation to illegal monetary sources by saying: "The election system in Pakistan is facing emerging challenges such as the increasing role of social media that has opened up new avenues for the use of money in elections in the form of third-party financing of political campaigns including from sources prohibited by the law."
Considering the elections are constitutionally due on October 11, unless a political understanding otherwise, FAFEN urged the political parties to agree on a minimum, common and absolutely-must agenda for reforms, which may include the following crucial areas that need urgent attention in addition to the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020.
The political parties need to build consensus on strengthening the provisions of the Elections Act, 2017, concerning the use of money in elections, it said.
The existing checks on the election expenses are of little or no significance in the absence of:
I) A clear definition of the election expense specifying the duration during which an expense would be deemed as an election expense;
II) Consideration of third-party financing in form of donations, and material support as expenses incurred by the candidate without any condition;
III) Mandatory scrutiny of candidates' election expenses by the ECP;
IV) Any punitive consequences for falsifying or withholding information in expense returns;
V) A limit for the political parties' financing of election campaigns; and
VI) Legal mechanisms to regulate election expenses incurred directly by the candidates or the political parties or their supporters using online means and social media. The proposed committee should consider strengthening the relevant sections of the Elections Act 2017 especially Sections 136 and 211, which concern the ECP’s action relating to election expenses by candidates and campaign finance by political parties.
The statement by FAFEN also underscored the absence of a legal framework for regulating online political campaigning, advertising, fund-raising, and third-party financing
"It remains a challenge to the integrity of the election process as well as its outcome, all having consequences on the election process and voter choice."
The existing regulations and campaign expense caps do not adequately cover the campaigning and spending on social media by political actors from inside or outside the country, it stated.
"...without the political contenders agreeing upon the extent and means of regulations on social media, the upcoming elections may see far more complex controversies than witnessed ever before in the country’s electoral history."
The electoral watchdog further added: "Political parties need to create provisions in the Elections Act, 2017 for greater control of the ECP in managing the election results that are overseen by the officials seconded by the executive and judiciary, right from polling station to the consolidation stages."
The law should be amended to bind the ECP for methodical scrutiny of constituency-specific election documents and forms including the entire result trail before the final notification of the returned candidates, it said.
FAFEN also remarked that such scrutiny "will help minimize post-election disputes and will reflect the spirit of the Constitution and the law that require the ECP to act as the custodian of the process."
While putting forth the suggestions regarding voters overseas it said that multiple Supreme Court judgments and political parties asked the parliament and the ECP to take steps to implement a "safe, reliable, and effective" method to enable overseas voting.
"However, such a legal agreement was not reached among the political parties. In absence of a reliable technological solution, extending the right to the postal ballot to overseas Pakistani voters may be a workable idea. They should also consider facilitating voting by internally displaced citizens who reside in other cities for work, through postal ballots," FAFEN added.
The FAFEN also noted the underrepresentation of women by underlining that "currently, the reserved seats in the National and Provincial Assemblies are occupied by women from 27 per cent of 136 districts of Pakistan, leaving more than two-thirds of the regions unrepresented" and advised that "the distribution of provincial quotas for reserved seats among administrative divisions can help address this geographical imbalance."