Poll system reform
BY N I A Z M U R T A Z A | 4/16/2015

THE snail-paced poll reform committee is focusing only on the election-holding process. Admittedly, this is the most contentious part of poll reforms since election-holding problems can precipitate agitation by losing parties like the PTL Ironically, electoral system reforms, i.e, the political systems under which elections are held, receive little attention by aggrieved politicians even though the PTI would have captured 18 more National Assembly (NA) seats had the 2013 elections been held on a proportional representation (PR) basis.

Thus, politicians should also give attention to the weaknesses of the current constituency-based, first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.

The most important such issue here is whether elections should be held for individual constituencies, or under proportional representation where parties win seats in proportion to the national votes each party secures. Under constituency-based elections, the percentage of seats parties win often varies significantly from their percentage of total nationwide votes.

The PML-N, PTI and PPP received 33pc, 17pc and 15pc of nationwide votes in 2013, but captured 46pc, 10pc and 12pc of the NA seats. Thus, the PTI and PPP got fewer seats than they would have under PR. The latter benefits smaller parties, especially those whose supporters are dispersed geographically. Ensuring fairness in allocation of seats proportionate to national popular support is hence the PR system`s biggest strength.

However, it has drawbacks too. Weak coalition governments are common under PR. The coalition lead party often becomes hostage to small parties, resulting in frequent early elections, as in Israel and Italy, as allies desert the leader if their demands get rejected. Furthermore, in constituency-based elections, electoral wins are a result of the standing of both individual candidates and parties.

However, under PR they are mainly dependent on party popularity since voters vote only for parties and not individual candidates, with parties naming their parliament representatives. This enhances the powers of party leaders and hence dictatorships within parties.

Given this mixed PR offering, it would be inadvisable for Pakistan to move fully to the PR system. To avail the strengths of both systems, Pakistan could consider electing the National Assembly on a constituency basis but the Senate on PR basis based on the percentage of votes rather than seats that parties got in the last election. This will increase smaller party clout in the Senate but still avoid hung assemblies where votes of no-confidence occur.

Pakistan could also consider electing the Senate and even women/minority National Assembly seats directly on PR basis to avoid giving party leaders too much authority over party candidates. Indirect elections seem appropriate only for largely ceremonial positions. There is also a case for governors being elected indirectly by provincial assemblies rather than being appointed by the federation.

Another major anomaly is that candidates often win individual constituencies under the FPTP system even though the majority of voters there have rejected them, ie winners got less than 50pc of the constituency votes, with the rest divided among several losing candidates.

It is often suggested that in such situations run-off elections should be held among the top two candidates. However, this could lead to delays in the constitutionally mandated time-bound formation of new governments if run-off elections must be held for a sizeable chunk of assembly seats. Instead, it would be wiser to have voters also identify their second and third preferences while voting. These could also be counted immediately after being suitably discounted (for example second preferences being counted as 0.75 of a vote) in case there is no outright winner.

This will allow the emergence of outright winners immediately. Finally, Pakistan has a bicameral parliament nationally but unicameral parliaments provincially. Other countries like the US also allow bicameral parliaments at the provincial/state level. The demands for creating more provinces have become louder in Pakistan. Some regions possess strong justification for becoming a province such as Gilgit Baltistan. However, in others, bifurcation may not be politically or administratively justified. There, the presence of provincial senates could be a middle option to satisfy both majoritarian reluctance and minority grievances. Provinces could be given the right to decide this issue on their own.

None of these changes individually or even together will deliver a shortcut panacea to poor governance. However, such changes could play their limited role in helping improve the quality of Pakistani governance gradually over time by removing various present-day system weaknesses. Unfortunately, inertia, centralization tendencies and security considerations have to-date impeded consideration of more creative system options.•
The writer is a political and development economist and a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley.


Published in Dawn