´Reforming Pakistan’s Electoral System´, crisisgroup

Reforming Pakistan’s Electoral System

Asia Report N° 203 30 Mar 2011


Electoral rigging has hampered Pakistan’s democratic development, eroded political stability and contributed to the breakdown of the rule of law. Facing domestic pressure for democracy, successive military governments rigged national, provincial and local polls to ensure regime survival. These elections yielded unrepresentative parliaments that have rubber-stamped extensive constitutional and political reforms to centralise power with the military and to empower its civilian allies. Undemocratic rule has also suppressed other civilian institutions, including the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which is responsible for holding elections to the national and four provincial assemblies, and local governments. With the next general election in 2013 – if the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government completes its full five-year term – the ruling party and its parliamentary opposition, as well as the international community, should focus on ensuring a transparent, orderly political transition through free, fair and transparent elections.

General Pervez Musharraf’s eight-year rule gravely eroded the ECP’s already limited independence, impartiality and competence, reducing the institution to providing a façade of legitimacy to military rule. Handpicked chief election commissioners (CECs) oversaw widespread rigging of two local government elections, a presidential referendum, and a general election. Musharraf’s Legal Framework Order, enshrined in the constitution though the seventeenth amendment, massively distorted the political system, tilting the electoral playing field towards the military’s civilian allies, including the Islamist parties.

These constitutional distortions were repealed in April 2010, when parliament unanimously passed the eighteenth amendment to the constitution, undoing Musharraf’s political legacy and introducing new provisions to strengthen parliamentary democracy. The amendment package enhanced the ECP’s independence by making the appointment of its key officials more transparent and subject to parliamentary oversight. The CEC and other ECP members, previously appointed by the president, will now be selected through consultations between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, and subsequently vetted and approved by a joint parliamentary committee comprising, equally, government and opposition members. While encouraging, this is only the first step in a longer process of electoral reform.

To curtail opportunities for the military to manipulate the political process, the ECP must be made independent, impartial and effective. The commission remains poorly managed, inadequately resourced, under-staffed and under-trained. Promotion prospects for ECP personnel are limited, and recruitment policies fail to attract strong candidates; top positions tend to be filled by civil servants from the regular federal bureaucracy, primarily because ECP officials lack the necessary skills. There are no systematic training programs for ECP staff, and the organisation devotes few if any resources to researching and analysing past elections and raising important electoral issues.

Electoral reform on all fronts is urgently needed. Highly inaccurate voters lists are responsible for disenfranchising millions. Polling procedures are often manipulated; accountability mechanisms for candidates and political parties seldom employed; and the electoral code of conduct routinely flouted. Dysfunctional election tribunals, characterised by corruption and prolonged delays, prove incapable of resolving post-election disputes. Such internal weaknesses constrain the ECP from overseeing credible elections and an orderly political transition.

The ECP has taken some steps to address these problems. In May 2010, it produced a strategic five-year plan, with significant international assistance, listing fifteen broad electoral reform goals, divided into 129 detailed objectives with specific timeframes, which range from improvements in voter registration and election dispute management procedures, to the creation of a comprehensive human resource policy. Although there were some, albeit limited, steps towards meeting targets for 2010, more substantive progress is unlikely unless parliament assumes political ownership over the plan, oversees its implementation, and holds the ECP accountable for unsatisfactory progress.

Credible elections, however, require far more than just structural reforms. Many discriminatory laws remain in place, including easily manipulated qualification criteria requiring electoral candidates to be of good Islamic character. Moreover, an interventionist military high command appears bent on shaping the political order to its liking. Although the PPP’s main opposition, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) has repeatedly expressed its support for the democratic transition and refusal to unseat the elected government via unconstitutional means, it must match rhetoric with action. In the past, both the PML-N and the PPP have instead chosen to collude with the military at times.

A new population census, originally due in 2008, is scheduled for August-September 2011, presumably followed by a large-scale redistricting exercise. The last redistricting, under Musharraf in 2002 and 2005, ahead of national and local elections respectively, was designed to serve narrow political objectives. Political violence and ethnic conflict could be sparked countrywide by a flawed census, gerrymandering and a rigged election.

The international community, too, particularly the U.S. and EU, should realise that a flawed general election in 2013, if not sooner, would pose a serious threat to Pakistan’s stability. Donors and Western capitals should immediately shift their programs and advocacy to support for a smooth political transition, rather than wait for the election season to begin.


To the National and Provincial Governments of Pakistan:

1.  Transform the parliamentary subcommittee on electoral reform to a permanent, full committee.

2.  Increase the independence and improve the functioning of the ECP by:

a)  appointing without delay new members of the ECP, according to the provisions of the eighteenth and nineteenth constitutional amendments;

b)  granting the ECP complete financial autonomy by passing legislation providing for budgetary allocation to the commission, reflecting to the extent possible its determination of needs;

c)  making the ECP’s code of conduct part of the electoral law, and requiring the ECP to revise it for each electoral cycle;

d)  requiring that the ECP’s nominees for election tribunals be approved by the permanent parliamentary committee on electoral reform;

e)  ensuring that all federal and provincial executive authorities assist the ECP, as required by law, particularly in enforcing the code of conduct, including provisions relating to the use of government resources for electoral purposes;

f)  ensuring that all executive officers deputed to electoral duties are subject to ECP supervision, and not of their parent department; and

g)  removing the condition that the CEC and members of the ECP be retired judges, instead opening up the selection process to people of integrity and experience.

3.  Submit the ECP’s five-year strategic plan for review and a vote by the permanent parliamentary committee on electoral reform which should make amendments where necessary; require regular reports by ECP officials on steps taken to achieve the plan’s objectives; and hold ECP officials accountable for unsatisfactory progress.

4.  Ensure that a new population census is carried out in August-September 2011, as scheduled, as well as a credible redistricting exercise ahead of the next local or general election, based on the new census; empower the permanent committee on electoral reform in the National Assembly, and similar committees in the provincial assemblies, to hold public hearings on the ECP’s redistricting exercise, to review and approve the redistricting plan for national and provincial constituencies; and subject final approval to vote in the relevant legislature.

5.  Remove all qualification criteria for electoral candidacy that are based on vague definitions of moral suitability, including adherence to Islamic injunctions.

To the Election Commission of Pakistan:

6.  Prioritise the timely implementation of the Five-Year Strategic Plan (2010-2014).

7.  Enhance accountability of voting processes, election officials and electoral candidates by:

a)  ensuring to the extent possible that all electoral constituencies are roughly equal in population size, and abide by other criteria in the Delimitation of Constituencies Act, 1974;

b)  revising the code of conduct for each electoral cycle;

c)  barring temporary election staff from officiating in their home districts, and taking action against those found guilty of corruption or bias;

d)  instituting an independent mechanism for challenging the appointment of polling officials;

e)  providing election observers unfettered access to polling stations;

f)  rejecting the proposed incorporation of electronic voting machines (EVMs), and instead improving the existing system of paper ballots and manual counts through better training and neutral observation;

g)  simplifying complaints and appeals procedures by reducing the number of administrative personnel tasked with processing petitions, and streamlining all relevant administrative mechanisms; and

h)  introducing robust measures for scrutinising annual statements of assets and liabilities filed by parliamentarians, and prescribing punishments, to be administered by the ECP, for elected officials filing false statements.

8.  Improve the polling process by:

a)  prohibiting candidates from contesting elections in more than one constituency;

b)  implementing complete computerisation of the voter registration process, including photographs of voters as a further guarantee against bogus voting; publishing the final voters list on the ECP’s website; and abiding by the new constitutional requirement for revising the list annually;

c)  preparing a permanent list of polling stations through consultations with all stakeholders, providing their locations on the ECP website and providing written explanations for any changes made by district returning officers; and

d)  expediting the pilot project on computerised electoral rolls and expanding it countrywide.

9.  Improve infrastructure, enhance training and research, and increase human resource capabilities by:

a)  implementing a comprehensive human resource policy, preparing job descriptions for all positions and devising a clearly defined path of career progression for all permanent staff;

b)  recruiting ECP officials in Basic Pay Scale (BPS)-17 through the Federal Public Service Commission, and establishing an Electoral Service of Pakistan along the lines of other occupational groups in the federal civil service;

c)    recruiting qualified people from the non-govern­ment sector as temporary staff for election day duties, rather than strictly from the executive; and determining the terms and conditions for temporary staff recruitment, investigating misconduct and taking disciplinary action against polling officials found guilty of misconduct;

d)  developing specialised courses in electoral administration, taught by professional instructors;

e)  expanding the role of the Federal Election Academy by equipping it with trained staff and improved facilities;

f)  adopting a comprehensive training program with two components: a basic orientation course that familiarises recruits with the history, functions and powers of the ECP, and its conduct of previous elections; and specialised instruction in specific areas of electoral administration, such as the preparation of electoral rolls, delimitation of constituencies and electoral dispute resolution; and

g)  establishing training programs for all temporary staff recruited for electoral duties on the role and functions of the ECP, responsibilities in managing assigned polling stations, and effective response to poll-related violence.

To the International Community:

10.  Support a still fragile democratic transition by prioritising democratisation programming, sending unambiguous signals to the military high command that any interference in the political process will be unacceptable and would result in the suspension of military assistance; and shift the focus of programming and engagement towards ensuring a credible and orderly political transition after the next general election.

11.  Acknowledge that elections are not a purely technical but an intensely political process and adjust programming to engage beyond the bureaucracy with the full spectrum of stakeholders, including parliament and political parties, and secure political ownership at the national and provincial levels over election-related programs.

12.  Support the development of specialised training programs for dedicated instructors in electoral administration.

13.  Provide the ECP with technical support towards timely completion of its five-year strategic plan, with particular focus on:

a)  developing a comprehensive ECP information technology (IT) policy, including modernising the ECP’s IT Directorate, as well as supporting a strong IT infrastructure at the ECP secretariat, provincial election commission offices and field offices;

b)  computerising electoral rolls and building a serviceable electronic voter database;

c)  establishing linkages between all polling stations, and between polling stations and the computerised voter rolls;

d)  building a serviceable electronic database to track electoral complaints; and

e)  providing geographical information systems to digitally map electoral areas and ensure that constituency delimitation takes place along scientific lines.

14.  Insist that the Strategic Plan Management Committee (SPMC) and the Review, Assistance and Facilitation Team (RAFT), be activated and made accountable to donors.

Islamabad/Brussels, 30 March 2011