The phenomenon of electoral violence is a major issue in nascent democracies of the world. In order to curb electoral violence, a multi-pronged approach is adopted all over the world which includes transparency in preparation of voters’ lists, delimitation of constituencies, freedom to vote without any extraneous political, social or economic pressures, transparent polling and result compilation process and a fair and swift electoral dispute resolution mechanism. The trust of voters on the transparency of these processes leads to a higher level of acceptability of the electoral process which itself is a mitigating factor for violence. As elections represent a contest for power, the very process is adversarial in nature. The intensity of this ingredient aggravates where political systems are not yet fully mature, literacy is low, people lack trust in electoral process and tribal, communal, religious or social pressures prevail over political ideologies. Resultantly, people resort to violent means due to lack of trustworthiness in the legal recourse. In order to offset such sentiments and ensure confidence of voters in the electoral exercise, the basic prerequisite is a strong legal framework supplemented by an effective administrative and enforcement mechanism.
In Pakistan, the existing legal framework for electoral process for general elections is enumerated in ‘The Representation of People’s Act, 1976’. For Local Bodies elections, almost same provisions have been incorporated in respective provincial local bodies’ laws. Besides ensuring transparency of the electoral process, the said laws also contain provisions to check electoral violence through delegation of magisterial powers to Returning Officers (RO) and Presiding Officers and placement of all executive authorities of government at their disposal. It has, however, been observed that despite provision of a reasonable legal framework, the recurrence of repeated violence in elections in Pakistan at all levels has been common. Though the culture of using violent means to ascend to political power is deeply entrenched, the same can be curbed if the legal framework is further strengthened and is effectively implemented.
The lynchpin in the electoral process is the RO and if his/her regulatory role is further strengthened, he/she can be an effective check on violence. The primary tool at the disposal of RO to curb violence is the local administration including Police authorities. Though in theory, all the executive authorities of the government are at the disposal of RO, practically it’s the district administration which calls the shots as they have under their direct command a trained field force with personnel, logistics and training to handle law and order. On the other hand, RO is temporarily placed for a short period of electoral process and is considered to be superimposed on the hierarchy of district administration and is dependent upon them. This dependence and short term appointment practically relegates the position of RO vis-à-vis district administration, making him/her less assertive in carrying out his duties particularly in maintenance of law and order. This situation puts no responsibility on those having resources and burdens those having practically no such resources under their direct command and control.
In order to rectify this anomaly, the maintenance of law and order should be the exclusive domain of district administration. There should, however, be stronger checks on them to offset the apprehension of interference in elections by the incumbent government to its advantage, especially in case of Local Bodies elections as the district administration is under its direct control. These checks may include provision of a quantified weightage by the RO in the relevant district administration officer’s annual Performance Evaluation Report on the basis of his/her performance. On the same lines, RO should have the authority to penalize the political party and individual voters who are proved to be involved in any incident of electoral violence. The penalty in such cases may include stripping an individual’s right to vote for life or a certain period of time, depending upon the nature and intensity of offence. Simultaneously, the political party or candidate whose activists are found involved in violence may be penalized by reduction of their votes by a certain number or percentage or even banning a party or a candidate from participation in election for a certain period of time in the said constituency, depending upon the nature of offence. These penalties may be in addition to the criminal proceedings under the existing laws. A set of legal changes to this effect may reinforce the authority of the ROs who in turn will have a better control of executive authorities of the government at their disposal. Moreover, the strong deterrence of penalizing the right of franchise and participation in election by political parties and individuals may force them to refrain from violence in the electoral process.