Jan 26, 2010

Fixing Pakistan's Election Commission

Mosharraf Zaidi

One of the most important organisations in Pakistan is the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). It has a very, very difficult job. With limited resources and at the mercy of the military, the political and the bureaucratic elite of Pakistan, the ECP is supposed to somehow conduct free, fair and credible elections in Pakistan. With more than two dozen 24-hour news channels and a civil society umbrella group like the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), the ECP's job has become significantly easier. In the February 2008 elections FAFEN mobilised more than 19,000 observers on election day. Added to the hundreds of DV cameras, the thousands of voice recorders and the millions of mobile phones that both professional and part-time journalists were wielding, the February 2008 election was one of the fairest in memory. And yet it had serious flaws. This is because ultimately, no matter how vigilant and engaged a country's press and civil society is -- the work of holding elections to a certain standard is the responsibility of the ECP. The question of how well-equipped the ECP is to handle this responsibility requires very little assessment of the ECP itself. In the most important matters, it is not the ECP that disables elections from being truly free, fair and credible. It is the overarching culture of governance in Pakistan.

Beyond the obvious pre-poll, polling day and post-poll electoral fraud, one of the biggest problems in elections is the use of state resources as instruments of electoral fraud. This is a two-layered problem. The first layer is the fact that state resources are susceptible to misuse at all. The second is the fact that, given the availability of these resources, the mitigation of the risk of misuse tends to be extremely weak, and therefore, effectively negligible. Active misuse of state resources as instruments of electoral fraud is a function of both systemic gaps, and procedural gaps.

Systemic gaps are the shortcomings in the system of checks and balances that protects state resources from misuse or abuse. This public financial management system includes the range of institutions, organisations, mechanisms and processes that relate to the oversight of public funds, the formulation of budgets, appropriations decisions, and the audit and accounts functions. Procedural gaps that enable the misuse of state resources are specific to the processes that govern the planning, conduct and administration of elections by the ECP. If elections were to be administered with strict adherence to both the letter of the law and the spirit of fairness, the ECP could not possibly countenance the exploitation of the existing weaknesses in the public financial management system. Instead, for structural, cultural and operational reasons, the ECP is neither willing, nor able to stem the use of state resources as instruments of electoral fraud.

The threat or prospect of state resources as instruments of electoral fraud is not an abstract or conceptual one. There are three ways in which state resources are misused during elections.

The first is the misuse of office itself. Remember Gen Musharraf? In 2002, then Chief Executive Gen Musharraf conducted a referendum on whether he should hold office or not. After using state resources, including the Press Information Department of the Ministry of Information, as well as dozens of advisers and consultants, he won the roundly discredited referendum by an overwhelming 97 per cent. Subsequent elections were equally unfair, if not as widely discredited. In 2003, the finance minister was elected to parliament, so that he could take oath as prime minister, despite never having visited the constituencies he was elected from (again, with overwhelming margins). Parliament, the finance ministry itself, as well as the chief minister of Sindh were actively involved in that campaign.

The second manner in which state resources are misused is through the provision of cash or in-kind payments to citizens, for the purpose of achieving favourable electoral outcomes. Most frequently this takes place through social protection programmes. In the 2008-2009 election cycle, widespread allegations of the use of a short-lived instrument called the Kefalat Fund were corroborated. The Kefalat Fund was begun by Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi several weeks prior to the election, and continued to make payments well after the election was over (interestingly this fund was launched by the bureaucrats that now lead the federal government). The Kefalat Fund, whose sole purpose was to ensure that the chief minister's son won his election, provided Rs1,500 per household, mostly in the electoral constituency that the chief minister's son was running in. Ironically, the chief minister's son lost that election.

In the 2009 elections in Gilgit-Baltistan, quite apart from a bevy of administrative issues, the widespread use of the federal government offices by the ruling party was widely reported in the press. The PML-Q has alleged widespread misuse of the Baitul Maal fund, among a bevy of other allegations. Even without the PML-Q's allegations, the prime minister himself made a visit to the area to urge voters to turn out for his party, and in the process committed to ensuring that 50,000 Benazir Income Support Programme forms would be distributed to the area's residents.

Finally, the third manner in which state resources are misused is through the provision of employment in the public sector. Handing out jobs in the public sector represents a major problem for several reasons. Guaranteed job security and low accountability for employees aside, public-sector jobs represent a long-term liability for the public sector (salary, health coverage, pension), and a serious performance risk (government employees are unaccountable and inefficient generally, and those hired because of political connections, doubly so). Since most jobs are those of teachers, the liability is particularly important, damaging the education sector, and ensuring skewed allegiances on election day (since so much election administration is out-sourced to teachers). Those teachers that owe their jobs to local politicians invariably represent a risk to free, fair and credible elections. In the recent Gilgit-Baltistan election, the prime minister announced 8,000 new government jobs for residents of the area and Rs6,000 salary top-ups for existing employees of the government. In Punjab, though there is no election on the horizon, the PML-N government in the province announced the regularisation of all its contractual employees, even though it is in the midst of an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

While the overarching systemic weaknesses in Pakistan's public financial management system are not going to be reformed in the foreseeable future, the procedural weaknesses can be overcome by the relatively manageable realm of electoral reform.

To arrest the misuse of state resource in elections, five things need to take place urgently. First, a serious and comprehensive electoral reform process needs to be realised for ensuring a neutral, credible, efficient and empowered electoral institution. Second, the ECP needs to become truly independent from the executive branch. To gain this independence, the ECP needs to be fiscally autonomised. Third, in order to neutralise the impact of the use of public policy and budgetary processes as enablers of elections, all new development activities needs to be declared six months before an election is scheduled, including any kind of employment decisions outside the routine. Fourth, a national discourse on the fiscal implications of a constant growth in the size of government, and specifically of permanent employment in the public sector in Pakistan, needs to begin. Finally, caretaker governments need to be truly neutral. To achieve such neutrality, caretaker governments need to be made up of a mix of actors with diverse political backgrounds and sympathies.

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