The change in voting system has made the next Pakistani elections controversial

The change in voting system has made the next Pakistani elections controversial

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Last week the government bulldozed more than two dozen legislations including a controversial election reform bill in a single session of the joint sitting of the parliament. It is certainly a record in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. Ignoring the opposition’s protest, the ruling party pushed through one bill after the other. There seemed a reason for the government’s hasty action. 
A week earlier the government was twice defeated in the National Assembly in voting on some bills and a joint session of parliament was called off at the last moment because the allied parties were not willing to support the election reform bill. Sensing the government’s vulnerability they had raised their stakes. But last Wednesday the government somehow managed the numbers. 
This is certainly not unusual in Pakistani politics. Yet the panic in the government’s ranks made things extremely ominous. Evidently, the government was shaken by the crack in its relations with the security establishment whose support has been pivotal for the survival of the fragile coalition. The opposition too has upped the ante encouraged by the divide. 
Since coming to power more than three years ago the government of prime minister Imran khan has remained dependent on the military for almost every aspect of governance. The backroom support that also included managing votes in the parliament bailed out the government on many occasions. But with the military stepping back, the government’s vulnerability has increased. 
The passage of the bills with a very thin majority shows that not all is well with the government more than half way through its term. The votes may have given the government some sigh of relief, but the problems for the prime minister are far from over. Fighting on many fronts is not easy for the shaky coalition administration.

The legislation on the use of EVM in the next parliamentary elections due to be held in less than two years may further strain the government’s relations with the ECP-- which have already become very ugly.

Zahid Hussain

Although the government has been able to get the election reform bill passed it will not be easy for it to get them implemented. The bill is related to the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and voting rights for overseas Pakistanis. The government called the joint session of the parliament after failing to develop a consensus on the legislation. 
In fact, there has not been any serious effort by the government to take all the stakeholders on board. The objections of the opposition parties appear valid as EVMs haven’t been tested here and their reliability is questionable. It may also not be technically possible to arrange for voting by millions of expat Pakistanis spread all over the world to cast their votes for candidates in their respective parliamentary constituencies.
It is not only the opposition parties; the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) too has expressed its reservations on both issues. Some coalition partners were also not convinced by the bill. The prime minister, however, went ahead taking the bill to the parliament despite the risk of it being defeated. 
There are strong political reasons for the prime minister’s persistence regarding the reform bill. While the EVMs have become more a matter of prestige for the prime minister, voting rights for overseas Pakistanis are considered critical for the PTI to win the next election. There is an assumption that the expat vote could swing the result in the PTI’s favor. But the process, with all its technical complications, could make the elections controversial.
The passage of the election reform bill could further aggravate the government’s standoff with the opposition, which has declared that any election using EVM will not be accepted. The opposition leaders said that they would challenge the legislation changing the voting system in the Supreme Court. Like many other political issues in Pakistan, this matter will also be fought in the court instead of being resolved in parliament. 
The legislation on the use of EVM in the next parliamentary elections due to be held in less than two years may further strain the government’s relations with the ECP-- which have already become very ugly. The commission had earlier recorded its objections to the use of EVM and pointed out that it could easily be manipulated. 
Then there are questions about the training of the operators and manufacturing of such a large number of machines within a short time. It also needs huge amounts to buy the machines. All those issues have made the entire legislation highly controversial and impractical. 
Winning the parliamentary battle was politically important for the government but the way the legislations were bulldozed, violating all parliamentary and democratic norms, will further erode the government’s credibility. The next elections have already become controversial. 

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.

Twitter: @hidhussain

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