Abraham Lincoln best defined the notion of democracy as: “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. This represents the inclusiveness of democracy that is reflective of the wishes of the masses i.e. the general public or Awam. In today’s blog we will try to analyze the role of general public in fostering democracy at the grass root level.

It is ultimately the public, who is in the position to hold their representatives accountable. However, for this accountability the active participation of the citizens is imperative. Unfortunately in developing countries such as Pakistan the electoral candidates are chosen often on the pretext of how much development work would he/she carry out in the constituency. This constituency-focused approach makes perfect sense with regard to Local Government Elections (LGE) because the very purpose of the local government is to work for the development of the concerned village, tehsil or district at the grassroots level. However, when choosing a candidate for the National or Provincial assemblies, it is imperative to keep an eye on the “bigger picture”, i.e. to see the impact that the candidate or political party of our choice will have on the national or provincial fronts. As citizens, while a enjoying a better standard of living is our right, we must also be mindful of our responsibility to vote for the candidate or political party that (to the best of our understanding) will play an instrumental role in uplifting the plight of the country at the macro level. This is especially important because while local government representatives are entrusted with working for the betterment of the specific village, tehsil or district for which they have been chosen, parliamentarians on the other hand are also responsible for legislation, i.e. laws that govern the working of the state at the national or the provincial level. Accordingly, our choice of candidate while voting for the national or provincial assemblies is likely to have a much greater impact on the welfare of millions of fellow citizens across the country or the province and hence, it is necessary that we think beyond the welfare of our constituency.

The political parties do come up with electoral manifestos but these are seldom put into implementation and are rather showcased for media. Once the elections are over, the citizens, much like most political parties forget about the promises made during the electoral campaign. However, with the new age of technology, citizens in many countries are finding innovative ways to ensure that pledges made by political parties and their leaders during election campaigns are not forgotten. An interesting example here can be of “Morsi meter” an online portal set-up by a group of citizens in Egypt to monitor the pledges made by President Morsi during his election campaigns. This digital initiative has successfully been documenting and monitoring the performance of Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, providing the citizens with a platform to have their voices heard, to hold the government accountable and most importantly to collectively exert pressure on the sitting government to deliver on its election promises.

Moreover, lack of voter registration is the missing link when it comes to grass-root democracy or local bodies elections. As citizens we need to understand that our voting right is not a privilege but rather a duty and we must register as voters in our respective communities and furthermore we must cast our votes during elections be it for national, provincial or local bodies. Citizens also play a pivotal role in strengthening the local bodies as they elect representatives such as councilors and Nazims. The local bodies’ representatives are the ones who are responsible to ensure provision of municipal services in the area. Through meaningful participation the citizens can ensure that their voices are heard and public officials take the necessary measures. Holding corner meetings in our local communities or during Friday prayers can carry out such participation.

Lastly, democracy cannot take its roots at the grass-root level without proactive engagement of females and marginalized communities such as the religious and ethnic minorities, transgender people and of course the youth. It is important to point out here that females make well over half of Pakistan’s population. This fact alone makes them a key stakeholder in the democratic process and for this reason it is essential that we take into account their needs and perspectives and effectively use their skills in trickling down the benefits of democracy to the masses. Similarly, more than 60% of Pakistan’s population comprises of youth. It is therefore imperative that young people are involved and empowered to make informed decisions about choosing the government of their choice. Finally, minorities – be they religious, ethnic or gender-based – have to be included in the fold as equal citizens. While most political parties speak about protecting the rights of the marginalized segments of the society, we as citizens have a huge responsibility to ensure that the minority segments are involved in the decision making process (at local, provincial or national level) and accorded their right as equal and empowered citizens of the state.

Media, plural of Medium, is a Latin word which literally means an intervening agency, means or instrument used to store and deliver information or data. In general, it is termed as a means of general communication, information or entertainment covering multiple modes such as press, photography, advertising, cinema, broadcasting (radio and television) and publishing. The term Media was first applied to newspapers about two centuries ago and since then it has also obtained a political connotation covering all mediums used to communicate political information to cross section of people that reaches and influences them as well. Initially covering newspapers and magazines only as print media, it expanded its scope to radio and television as electronic media while social media is the latest addition to it. As it greatly influences the opinion building of public, it is also termed as the fourth pillar of state. Media plays an indispensable role in effective functioning of a democracy. In electoral context, its importance as a watchdog is extremely valuable. It helps the voters to make their elected representatives accountable by highlighting their successes and failures during their tenures. It makes a critical analysis of policies of governments to help them perform better or revise the policies adversely affecting the public or national interest. It helps to make a comparative analysis of electoral practices and electoral bodies’ managements highlighting successful models across the world to help adopt international best practices and policies. This makes the electoral process transparent, thus restoring people’s confidence in the very foundation of a political process and the system. In short, Media educates the voters to help them exercise their democratic rights on merit by making an appropriate choice of a candidate or party in the electoral process. The Media contributes in this process by communicating to the voters the right information about performance, education, experience, achievements, future agendas and previous role of proposed candidates, political parties, governance systems and procedures to help the voters make a sound decision as to whom they should surrender their political will for best pursuit of national goals. However, in this situation, a great burden and responsibility lies on Media’s shoulders that they should remain neutral and above all political affiliations while reporting the election activities. A professional journalist or media house needs to be above board to convey a report or analysis by presenting all existing dimensions and opinions about the parties and individual candidates with minimum possible bias so that voters get more educated to vote for the best candidate or party in the run. The present trend wherein the journalists, particularly the electronic media anchors, have transformed their roles more into analysts with focus on enforcing their own opinions and wanting their audience to follow their preferences is a dangerous trend of imposing one’s thought process on others which can simply be termed as Media dictatorship. A more dangerous trend is the misuse of media power by certain individuals in the name of freedom of expression leading to blackmailing of certain individuals to cover their misdeeds or undue promotion of others to help them elevate their position in corridors of political power houses to get undue benefits in return. Some individuals in Media resort to such short term individual gains at the expense of their institution for earning favors from those in authority due to the powers which they enjoy or are likely to enjoy in future, thus promoting corruption and nepotism in the political system right at the time of elections. A more unregulated face of Media is the new trend of social media where anyone can express any comments which are sometimes in total disregard of the moral, legal or social norms of a civilized society and may undermine the political future of a political contestant creating bias against him. The need, however, is of an effective code of conduct for Media and a strong regulator so that responsible reporting is promoted and false, malicious and malafide content is filtered out with the realization that such a content can lead to their accountability and cost them heavily as professional mediapersons.

Should persons with disabilities be part of the electoral process and contribute to the public accountability of elected representatives? Although 98 census puts figures of disabled persons in the country at 2.5 % of the total population in the country, disability organizations have always contested this figure suggesting that disabled population is closer to around 10 % of the total population. This population of persons with disabilities has special needs characterized by the nature of different disabilities. Persons with disabilities have to face multiple barriers owing to their different disabilities. They can only take part in mainstream life if attitudinal, social and physical barriers are removed. Persons with disabilities can only ensure public accountability of elected representatives with regard to the realization of their special needs and creating a barrier free environment if they are able to exercise their vote power. We all know that like any other power, vote power only has value when it can be exercised. Can voters with disabilities exercise their vote power independently, in secret and with dignity like their non-disabled peers? What access barriers do voters with disabilities face while casting their votes? What is the policy of the Election Commission of Pakistan in this regard? People with disabilities face manifold barriers that hamper their participation in the political process. Some of these are attitudinal and others physical About the voting rights of the disabled persons, EC maintains, “Where an elector is blind or incapacitated and cannot vote without the assistance of a companion the presiding officer shall allow him such assistance”. This statement pays greater emphasis on the goodness of human nature rather than providing the equal opportunity environment to the voter with disabilities. It presupposes that allowance of the assistance of the presiding officer will help the disabled voter cast his vote independently, in secrecy and with dignity. This approach is a very limited one and offers assistance only at the polling station. It does not spell out off-site help to those PWDs who cannot come to the polling stations. We need to make Bill of electoral rights for citizens with disabilities part of our efforts to make electoral process inclusive for persons with disabilities. This bill was “drafted and endorsed by participants attending a four-day workshop held from 14-17 September 2002, in Sigtuna, Sweden. This bill calls on all states to meet their obligations in providing equal opportunity environment to the citizens with disabilities so that they could exercise their universal right of equal participation in the electoral process. Furthermore, Election Commission of Pakistan should adopt Standards of electoral access for citizens with disabilities. These standards can be very useful in our context and we will not have to reinvent the wheel. These standards address all issues pertaining to the voting rights of PWDs like non-discrimination, the state’s obligation to “overcome specific difficulties”, the right to a secret vote in public, providing options to the voters with disabilities in deciding the alternative ways they want to cast their votes, assistive voting, off-site voting and promulgation of instructions to the polling staff regarding voters with disabilities. [These standards can be very useful in our context and we will not have to reinvent the wheel. These standards address all issues pertaining to the voting rights of PWDs like non-discrimination, the state’s obligation to “overcome specific difficulties”, the right to a secret vote in public, providing options to the voters with disabilities in deciding the alternative ways they want to cast their votes, assistive voting, off-site voting and promulgation of instructions to the polling staff regarding voters with disabilities. Furthermore, Election Commission of Pakistan should adopt Standards of electoral access for citizens with disabilities.

Pakistan is democratic country that has witnessed intermittent elections due to repeated military takeovers. Due to this, the continuity of political processes, democratic development and institutional building in the country remained a dream. In 2013, country experienced the smooth transfer of power from one democratic regime to another because of hence to supposedly transparent, free, and fair General Elections 2013. Nevertheless, currently Pakistan is witnessing political crisis owing to alleged rigging in May 2013 General Elections invoked by some opposition political parties. The accusations and counter accusations have to be judged by the competent commission. However, the alleged or one can say a possible rigging in elections are mainly due to either non-availability or due to non-implementation of strong and effective legal framework related with electoral processes. The laws related with conduct of elections, political finances, and political parties are name of the few. The democratic development of Pakistan being in transition phase, there is need of electoral reforms that must include the requirement of enactment of new laws for political finance regulations and the steps taken to implement the existing one with letter and spirit. Pakistan legal framework for political finance regulation provides for three things, for instance, the prohibitions, limitations, and disclosure. If we review the existing laws, the legal provisions are either vague or incomplete and if available are partially implemented or mostly not implemented at all. Political parties and individual candidates spend funds on electoral campaign which are not strictly monitored according to law by concerned authority. According to law, as stipulated in sections 5 and 6 of ‘The Political Parties Order 2002, the political parties have to maintain bank accounts for party funds, contributions, and disbursement and to submit to ECP annual record. Similarly, sections 49 of the Representation of Peoples Act 1976, provides for limitation of election expenses to 1.5 million through a valid single bank account for a candidate contesting elections for National Assembly seat and limitation of election expenses of 1 million for a contesting candidate of Provincial Assembly seat. Additionally, section 50 of the ROPA 1976 provides for maintenance and return of election expenses constituted of contributions made and expenditures incurred to returning officers. As a matter of practice, after elections only few of the electoral candidates submit returns to ECP. Nevertheless, the returned candidates have to submit election expanses returns unless their official notification of being returned candidates is held by ECP. But, such returns are not counter verified during or after elections. Resultantly, there are observed several incidents of violations of election laws related with election spending. There is need to implement the existing political finance regulations and to enact the ones that are missing to make electoral process of Pakistan more robust, strong and independent of any influences. The need of enactment of new laws would be covered in subsequent blogs.

“Each Provincial Government shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibilities and authority to the elected representatives of the local government”, says article 140-A of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It has been almost four years since people in three provinces of Pakistan have remained deprived of their representative local governments, one Baluchistan, had LG elections in 2013. Inclusive and participatory government is privy to the definition of democracy and this can only be achieved when people are made part of the decision making process. Pakistan has seen four local government systems, three of them introduced by the dictators who wanted to get their legitimacy by reaching to the masses through local governments. The most visible and eventful, if not successful, was the system of local government introduced by Musharaf regime in 2001. This system was later defunct after the 2008 elections when democratic forces took over and the dictator was forced to resign. Elections in 2008 brought a new era of democratic rule in Pakistan that raised hope of the people for more share in the government but these hopes met with severe setback when the democratic forces failed to install a local government system even after completing a full tenure in office. All the political parties promised local governments in run for elections in 2013 but again it proves to be a long way to go. Establishment of local governments is the responsibility of the provincial governments who have not yet been able to act upon this constitutional injunction in three provinces. Though all the provinces have come up with legislation on local government but elections are yet to be held. There can be no second word on importance of local government, it brings governance to the door step of the people, makes them part of the governance process and includes their wishes in the local decision making. Local governments give ownership of the local resource to the people while making them responsible to resolve their indigenous problems locally. Hence local government empowers people with the resources as well as ability to use these resources for their collective good. The case for local governments becomes stronger when article 140-A comes forth for its endorsement. The incumbent provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have not only failed to establish democracy in its true form but it also implies that constitution has not been upheld. If Pakistan has to emerge as a democratic state it must strengthen democracy by implementing the constitutional injunctions and establishing local governments at local governments in all provinces.

Vote by strict definition means a formal indication of a choice between two or more candidates or courses of action, expressed typically through a ballot or a show of hands. It is also termed as a choice expressed collectively by a body of electors, a specified group or an individual. In political terms, it is the right to register a choice in an election to a political office in any tier of government. Derived from the Latin word votum meaning ‘a vow or wish’, in political terms it has transformed its meaning to express one’s desire to support an individual, group or party to carry out an agenda(s) or policy(ies) which an individual voter considers appropriate for the welfare of a certain group, community or a nation. In the modern day political systems, where democracy is the most accepted and established international political standard of governance, voting is the preamble or basic foundation for edifice of such a system. Therefore, in order to have strong and effective democratic system, it must be built on strong and transparent foundations, the credibility of which is not questionable. For this to happen, an independent, free and transparent voting is the only option to ensure a strong foundation for democracy in any system. In Pakistan as well, when we urge the citizens to vote in an electoral process, the objective is to make them a part of the decision making process for the future policies to be implemented by their representatives for whom they have voted for. To realize this objective, the foremost priority is to make the citizens confident about utility of such an exercise. In other words, the voters should have faith in transparency of the exercise as well as equal opportunity for all those who participate in this exercise to get elected so that voter has a variety of choice among the candidate to be voted upon. Now two basic questions arise in such a situation particularly in case of Pakistan. First, whether the citizens have confidence in transparency of voting system so that they are sure that their voting has not been tampered with. Second, whether the voters have enough of variety of candidates to vote for a candidate he considers closest to his ideals to translate the policies as he desires appropriate for the country. Though in some sections of the society, there is a general feeling of alienation with the electoral system and unfortunately it also includes the educated and urban elite, it generates an extremely unwanted reaction by this section in the form of reluctance to vote. There is a strong opinion that those who resort to this abdicating posture are the ones who are otherwise supposed to be most active to mobilize the voters as they are likely to be the future leaders of country. Resultantly, this absence of the educated and politically aware voter from electoral arena in fact gives strength to electoral block of voters who vote on ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and tribal lines. Therefore, those having a broader understanding of the national issues and policies themselves leave the field open for the ones having little understanding of the same by leaving the field open for them. In a society divided on ethnic, sectarian, linguistic and tribal lines, any priority for vote on these lines in fact results in the election of public representatives having the same priorities as well as interests which are translated into the larger policy making of country in the form of physical and legislative development resulting in further polarization of society at the national level. Consequently what we see is that a certain group of individuals who are shortsighted with narrow thinking of just their own or their group’s interests, ultimately prevail over long term national policy formulation with patronization of the individuals having same ideas and thoughts just because they were not confronted by the votes of those who have an understanding to give a policy direction to the country. But why this happens. How can the educated elite be made to realize that by not participating in the electoral exercise, they are in fact facilitating those whom they otherwise criticize for taking wrong decisions and making the country move astray from the desired goals. In fact the trend of criticizing the government policies and decisions by just talking in drawing rooms and discussion forums and not coming out on the voting day is sign of an aversion to speak through their elected representatives. This is akin to a perpetual crime against the future generations by making democracy to fail as they say that to make democracy work; we must be a notion of participants, not simply observers as the one who does not vote has no right to complain.

Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom-Thomas Jefferson

When addressing House of Commons on November 11, 1947, Winston Churchill said that Democracy was the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that had been tried from time to time, he might have in his mind the opportunities of accountability of the rulers that the democracy provides in greater number in comparison with any other form of government. Since democracy is defined as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’, it can be said that a citizen plays a pivotal role in the success or otherwise of the democratic system of government in terms of putting the resources to judicious use for the greater good of the society. In other words, what sets apart democratic system of government with any other form of government is the ability of the citizens to hold their elected representatives and public officials accountable. Furthermore, we can also say that if citizens are unable to hold elected representative and public officials accountable, it would become difficult to distinguish democratic system of government from other forms of government in which rulers are unaccountable to their citizens. So, how can citizens ensure accountability of their politicians and officials and what are their responsibilities in this regard?
At the outset, it needs to be understood that each and every voter should not only cast his vote but should be able to cast his/her vote independently, in secret and with dignity to elect representatives to run affairs of the government on his/her behalf. Furthermore, citizens should make sure that they are making informed choices while electing their representatives. If citizens are able to make informed choices rather than those based on rumors, they will be able to reject those candidates who could not protect their interests and did not work for the greater good of the society or are not qualified for such a responsibility. In other words, democracy is such a system of government that allows citizens to contribute to the public accountability right from elections stage of the democratic process. Are elections only way of public accountability in democratic set-up?
Elections are but just one of many ways of public accountability in democratic form of government. In fact, it is responsibility of citizens to ensure public accountability throughout the democratic process right from one general election to the next general elections. Are political parties delivering on the promises made in their election manifestoes? Are the public resources being put to use in judicious manner? How can public accountability be ensured throughout the democratic process?
Citizens should ensure open and transparent functioning of public bodies. This can be done by putting in place procedures facilitating citizens in having access to information held by public bodies as well as proactive disclosure of information by public bodies. In other words, citizens should ensure first enactment and then implementation of right to information laws. The significance of right to information laws with regard to public accountability can be gauged from the fact that over 100 countries have enacted such laws. Furthermore, need for free, independent and responsible media for public accountability can hardly be exaggerated. That is why press is regarded as the fourth pillar of the state as journalists exercise right to information on the behalf of citizens and serve as watch-dog keeping eye on not only the other three pillars of the state i.e. judiciary, executive and legislature but also on everything else in the society which impacts public good.
This post has barely scratched the surface with regard to the significance of public accountability in a democratic set-up. Furthermore, the essential elements of public accountability need to be discussed in greater detail. For example, if it is important for citizens to cast their vote independently, in secret and with dignity to ensure public accountability, then it also needs to be discussed as to how each voter, irrespective of physical impairments, creed, color, gender and status should be able to do the same. Similarly, how it can be ensured that the media is free, independent and responsible and as to who will watch the watch-dog and how? How can citizens use right to information laws to ensure public accountability in a democratic process? These and other questions will be dealt with in other posts.

Pakistan, as you well know is a Parliamentary democracy with a federal government and four provincial legislatures. In other words, there’s a federal government at the center (i.e. Islamabad) that takes care of national affairs on the whole and then there are four provincial governments that are entrusted with the welfare of the provinces. Have you ever thought why we don’t have Presidential system of governance or any other form and why this particular model was adopted to govern Pakistan? Well, in today’s blog we will discuss precisely that and specifically talk about why “federalism” is important for the country.

Let’s first establish a definition for “federalism”. Simply – but rather academically – put, “federalism refers to a system of government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (such as states or provinces). Need for further elaboration there? No? Great, let’s move on then!

Before talking about why federalism is important for Pakistan, let’s first take a little walk down memory lane and trace its history. Pakistan gained the status of an independent country in 1947, however it took us nine years after independence to present the first institution in the Constituent Assembly. In 1954 the assembly was dissolved by the Governor General without any constitutional mandate leading to instability in the political arrangement. The constitutions of 1956 and 1962 were abrogated (i.e. in other words “scrapped”!). in all honesty, the 1962 version of the constitution deserved abrogation because it broke the democratic rules of one-man, one-voter turnout as well as adult franchise and developed a flawed federal structure under which the concept of provinces was finished and the entire country fell under the “One Unit” system! Needless to say, the over centralization of the Pakistani federation resulted in the largest province seceding from the federation. Later, sanity prevailed and the Provinces were revived and One Unit was abolished, however provinces were denied their political, economic and cultural rights resulting in distrust between the federation and the provinces on the one hand and amongst the provinces on the other.

It was in this backdrop that the 1973 Constitution came into existence with consensus amongst all political forces within parliament and the provinces. The constitution promised a federal parliamentary system with provincial autonomy in which fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary would be ensured. Unfortunately the Constitution of 1973 was not implemented in letter and spirit and military dictatorships led to further centralization.

Thankfully, this imbalance in the federal structure was corrected through the eighteenth constitutional amendment in 2010. Pakistan is now a participatory federation with joint ownership of natural resources. It is quite a paradox that with the exception of the Constitution of 1962, all constitutional arrangements including the Government of India Act, 1935, Constitution of 1956 and the Constitution of 1973 are essentially federal in character though in practice a centralized form of government prevailed in the country. Repeated derailment of the democratic and constitutional process heightened tensions on issues of economic management, provincial autonomy and discretionary powers, particularly those vested in the office of the President of Pakistan. The Eighteenth Amendment has tried to address these issues keeping in view Pakistan’s historical context, its polity and its objective conditions. In other words the Eighteenth Amendment, throws up a Pakistani federalism that learns from the experiences of others but is rooted in the Pakistani reality. The Amendment provides ownership and participation in policy and management of natural resources, increased the legislative powers of the provincial assemblies including those on taxation. In termination, civil society organizations, journalists, politicos and other interest groups have a part to play in managing differences and creating a home grown federalism that is rooted in local polity and ensures unity in variety.

In a nutshell, it took Pakistan 67 years to devise the near perfect formula for federalism but now that it’s finally in place, it is the responsibility of each and every citizen to ensure that it prevails.

Armed with my vote registration information and electoral information, which I got from sending my CNIC number to 8300, I ventured to the polling station to cast my vote. With a quicker heart beat and suspense that who will win the elections, I walked with my head held high, sure in my heart that my vote will shape the future of my country.

The whole country was engulfed in the colors of elections. Every street was plastered (sometimes very untastefully) with election slogans; candidates profile pictures and banners displaying their past achievements trying to influence the voter to give their vote to them.

I was welcomed by a long queue, of at least 200 people waiting to poll their vote. Of course, my first reaction was that of any one who is in a queue of bills payment or in a traffic jam. But, I was very happy that most of us have woke up to our civic responsibilities and that we have decided to exercise the power of our vote.

The setting was electrifying. Slogans of various candidates and parties were swirling in the air. Sometimes irritating, but was creating a splendid back drop to the process of casting vote. I saw a couple of groups heatedly raising slogans in competition with each other. I was a bit worried that they might go head to head but to my relief, nothing untoward happened.

After about two hours of waiting, at last I was at the desk of the polling officer who checked my CNIC against his list and verified my vote number. He marked my thumb with permanent ink. I actually felt very proud of this mark and felt like a girl trying to protect her fresh coat of nail polish from getting smudged.

Then came the desk of the Assistant Presiding Officer. He filled the counter foil with my details and stamped on the back of the green National Assembly voting ballot paper which he then gave to me. On the next desk, the second Assistant Presiding Officer gave me the white ballot paper for Provincial Assembly, repeating the same process as the first one did.

With my voting ballot papers in my hand, I felt like James Bond, going behind the screen and casting my vote in secret. Looking over my shoulder over & over again, to make sure that no one is peeping in my booth to make my “secret” public. After stamping my favorite candidate for both the assemblies, I walked out of the screen, holding the ballot papers very near to my chest. I did not want to lose them!

I put my white Provincial Assembly ballot paper in the white top ballot box and green ballot paper for National Assembly in the green top ballot box.

And I walked out of the polling station, with my head held high and warmth in my heart that I have played a small but vital role in shaping the future of my beloved country.

Being an avid Twitter user, I usually get my scoop of the hottest discussion topics in Pakistan from the top trends that do rounds on this micro-blogging website. One trend that has been popping up every now and then recently is #ImplementBiometricSystem. In all honesty for the first few days I was too lazy to search out what this trend actually signified – I mean I had a working understanding of what biometric system was but there was little understanding when it came to introducing it for the electoral process. However, eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I finally went to Reverand Google for some answers and what I discovered is worth sharing with you!

Now it’s not exactly a ground-breaking statement but for democracy to function in its true spirit, one of the most important pre-requisites is of course a voting system that is accurate, transparent and fully authentic. Biometric Voter Registration offers all these three traits and expotentially minimizes the risk of rigging. Biometric Voter Registration System (BVRS) is a highly advanced information system that allows to enroll and identify millions of voters quickly and unmistakably. Using biometric identifiers (such as finger prints or iris scanning), the possibility of election fraud is minimized, at the same time considerably accelerating the voter identification process.

While the biometric technique for authentication of voters can be considered the answer to Pakistan’s voting woes, however as is the case with all man-made things, this system also has its share of cons. For instance, a problem may arise in the management of such a large database. Secure Connections are needed for confidential data retrieval of the information. Also, given the fact that the use of biometric technique in the issuance of ID cards is fairly recent in Pakistan, implementing the procedure and giving all eligible citizens a biometric identity will take a long time. There is then the issue of the cost involved because biometric authentication devices are extremely expensive. Finally, the issue that is perhaps most pertinent to Pakistan is that of illiteracy. A significant number of the registered voters are not literate and if biometric voting system is introduced, they will certainly face a huge challenge in operating the biometric voting machines at the polling booths.

In a nutshell, yes, the system is tedious to implement, but once it is done, the biometric system can revolutionize the electroral process in Pakistan. Perhaps, a logical approach would be to pilot it in major urban centres first and then gradually move towards carpet coverage of all constituiencies in the coming years.

Democracy in Pakistan has historically witnessed multiple deaths in infancy by repeated military takeovers due to a number of reasons. The dilemma of failure of political leadership in initial years to take prompt decisions regarding the type of government and powers of federating units was the first act of weakening the foundations of a strong democratic setup in Pakistan. By delaying these decisions and not holding elections, which is the very foundation of democracy, the initial political leadership undermined establishment of democratic culture and norms by attempts to continue in power by any means which also included obtaining support of military establishment by giving it a formal role in political setup. Emboldened by the dependence of political leadership on military and continued internal political rift creating an unstable political environment, military establishment seized power apparently encashing the public perception to set things right. Democracy, however, became a permanent casualty since then and all intermittent attempts to restore it saw repeated cycles of same political instability, witnessed in the initial years, repeatedly ending up in military takeovers. The necessary ingredients of democracy include free and fair elections followed by setting up of strong and independent institutions of executive, legislature and judiciary. A strong executive is supposed to efficiently run the government as per people’s aspirations in properly defined legal parameters with the basic duty of protection of life, property and economic and political interests of the people. Effective and strong instruments of accountability are a prerequisite for this to oversee the executive from acting as dictators. An effective legislature is supposed to make laws to facilitate the formation and implementation of government’s policies more effective and transparent to align and promote public and state interests. Most important in this respect is the role of judiciary which is supposed not only to ensure that existing laws are being implemented in their true spirit rather it has to check the arbitrariness of executive as well as to provide easy access to justice to every citizen. In view of the above defined ingredients of democracy, it is still a million dollar question whether Pakistan is on the right track to attain these ingredients or it is still under shadow of political culture of its initial years of history. A review of the state of governance in the existing democratic set up with mainstream political parties at the helm of affairs since 2008, there are varying perceptions about credibility of democratic process in Pakistan. Critics question whether Pakistan has been able to strengthen democratic process by ensuring strong institutions of executive, legislature and judiciary? Has the government been successful in ensuring relatively better safety and security of life and property to the citizens as compared to past? Is justice being delivered more promptly and effectively than before? Do the citizens feel enjoying more political rights, civil liberties and greater economic opportunities in a political setup? Though some optimists consider that all these conditions have witnessed improvement and continuity of democratic process will further improve the situation. However, there are others who are of the opinion that leadership is still showing political immaturity like the leadership of initial years. They are of the view that if any party has reservations on election results, what is the harm in obstructing an independent verification of the same. Some also opine that failure to timely evolve and implement a security policy as well as lack of judicial reforms to ensure prompt justice resulted in establishment of military courts which has reduced the space of governance for civilian setup which is in fact failure of civilian establishment and may increase distrust of public in the democratic system. Though pessimistic, but some perception exists about a friendly opposition to government in the garb of reconciliatory politics which has eliminated a strong check on the government. Resultantly, with all these perceptions coupled with failure of political leadership to deliver may result in failure of democracy in the country which will only strengthen the voices who consider Pakistan as unfit for a democratic form of government.

As we hear a lot about local government elections to be held this year, it is important to understand essentials of an effective local government. Local government means devolution of power at the local level. In other words, there is decentralization of power and power is shifted from the centre to the local level. The assumption is that locals will be able to take decisions about local matters after local governments are put in place after the elections. If it happens, it will be a gigantic step towards democracy. Will provincial governments share powers with districts?
After the 18th Amendment in the constitution, provinces have greater administrative autonomy. Furthermore, the provinces enjoy greater level of financial devolution after the reconstitution of National Finance Award. The irony is that the provinces are not willing to share the financial resources with the districts exactly on the same criterion the provinces have got those resources from the centre. The provinces are trying to control districts exactly the same way the centre used to control provinces. Until and unless provinces do not bring their Provincial Finance Awards in line with the National Finance Award and share resources with districts giving them greater financial autonomy, an effective local government at the district level will remain a mere pipe-dream.

Though democracy is not all about elections, but still the electoral process has extreme significance in a democratic system as it is the cornerstone of superstructure of democracy. The electoral process gives right to individuals to elect their representatives who ultimately influence political foundation and direction of a government. In any civilized setup, while using the term elections, transparency of the whole process i.e., the same being free and fair is by default covered in the meaning of the term election. This has also been accepted as fundamental human right in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which sates in its Article 21 that “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives… The will of people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” The internationally accepted basic ingredients for elections in an ideal democracy to work are that they should be periodic, genuine, held according to universal suffrage and by secret ballot. For being periodic, there should be an element of certainty of time frame in which they are to be held e.g., four or five years or any legally specified intervals guaranteeing the citizens a chance to change their leaders or support new policies. For being genuine means they should be free and fair offering equal opportunities for contesting candidates and political parties without undue restrictions of law, balanced access to media for all and an independent and neutral electoral process. For ensuring universal suffrage, there should be maximum participation with simple and easy voter registration processes for citizens with bare minimum legitimate restrictions such as age, residence, proof of identity, etc. For being held on the principle of secret ballot, the purpose is to ensure that no one except the voter knows whom he has voted for. The objective is to prevent intimidation or reprisal by those enjoying power in a society either due to their political, administrative or financial status. For making sure that these basic ingredients are a part of any electoral process, there is a need to have a neutral, independent and autonomous institution enjoying trust of the citizens and political parties to conduct elections. In countries like Pakistan which have experienced long stints of dictatorship, the basic ingredients for a free and fair election have always been tampered with by the regimes to obtain results as per their desires. Different methods adopted for this purpose have been uncertainty of their timing, making laws to disqualify ‘undesirable’ political parties who could pose challenge to ruling junta, administrative support to ‘desirable’ parties or candidates and above all maintaining a weak election conducting body which should neither have the will nor the capacity to ensure a free and fair election. Resultantly, the possibility for citizens to express their will and opportunity to change their leaders and address wrongs is lost and credibility of the elections is frequently challenged. Consequently, people lose trust not only in the electoral exercise but also in democracy as elections are foundation of the same. This is generally followed by a political system marked by conflict and instability strengthening the argument of failure of democracy and in most cases leading back into the vicious cycle of dictatorship.

The rigging in elections has become the popular notion more than that of democracy. Everybody from youth to old, men, women, educated, less educated, and illiterate persons all talk about rigging whenever the debate at hand is election or democracy. The rigging is so common a conviction that citizens seems disillusioned as well as disenchanted with democracy. The major argument goes what is the need of voting when our vote does not count and someone steel our mandate through rigging?
Citizens’ indictment about elections rigging is quite justified however citizens’ persistent argument of electoral process as vulnerable to fraud is erroneous on the ground that any inconsistency in electoral procedures can be rectified through citizens’ active engagement in elections. If citizens are well aware of the electoral processes, for example understanding the legal framework for the conduct of elections, the functioning of election management body (Election Commission of Pakistan aided with state institutions such as NADRA, State bank, FBR, Judiciary, Security Forces and others), moralities and legalities against vote buying, regulations of political finances, they can play their role against rigging. Citizens can play their role in two ways; first, they by understanding as well as following electoral processes can establish rule of law and set example for each other. Second, citizens can report violation of code of conduct of elections to concerned authorities. Citizens can also pressurize government for reforms in electoral processes and implementation of existing laws in letter and spirit.

The other day, I had some free time on hand. Browsing aimlessly on the internet, a link to the Election Commission of Pakistan website presented itself and I, for reasons unknown, clicked on it. There was a link of code of conduct for elections. That intrigued me and I decided to read through more than 40 salient points in the document.

I have to say, that was an interesting read. There were points on even the sizes of promotional material candidates have to use. There was a point which particularly caught my attention.

1. Criticism of other political parties and opponent candidates shall be confined to their policies and programmes, past record and work. Parties and candidates shall refrain from criticism of any aspect of private life, not connected with the public activities of the leaders or workers of other parties. Criticism based on unverified allegations and distortion of facts shall be avoided.

I have always been an admirer of US politics. And the thing which really attracts me is their tradition of Presidential debate. If I am not mistaken, the presidential candidates are to have at least two debates face to face in front of a live audience. They are usually on the topics of foreign affairs or defense policies, agreed by the candidates. In this debate, they try to tell the audience of why did they formulate such a policy and where the contestants policy lacks.

Unfortunately, that’s what I think is lacking in our political discourse. The deliberations and comparisons of policies of the parties. We are still in the phase of personality based politics. Our voters are not comparing or even considering policies, but vote for faces.

That is why, if we look at our political discussions, our political activists are not debating policies, but debating people of other parties. Thus, I believe violating the above mentioned code.

I mean I do not need to go in detail on what kind of heinous, baseless accusations are levelled against candidates, especially their personal lives during and after elections. This has to stop. If we have to mature as a nation and democracy, we have to think of policies and not what is in the closets.

I don’t want to sound as a very fine human being as I am sure at some point in time I would have done the same too. But the point behind writing this blog is just to take the first step towards a more disciplined and tolerant Pakistan.