The ballad of bad elections

Published in The Express Tribune – photo by Daniel Berehulak

782 days of this government; 126 days of dharnas and D.J.s; 86 days of the inquiry. And 246 pages of the eventual judicial commission report. Even as the result became clear, closure was hard to come by.

But it’s closure we need. The Chief Justice steps down on 17 August (making way for a mercurial successor). And like the 10 trials of Hercules, he’ll have to slay a line of demons before the big finish: from military courts to basic structure theory. The first task, however — resolving the two-year tug of war between Mr. Sharif and Mr. Khan — is behind him.

Here’s the takeaway, in black and white: ‘the 2013 general elections were in large part organised and conducted fairly, and in accordance with the law.’ Or at least, that’s the bit that made the rounds — the P.T.I. raged it had no report to read. The P.M., meanwhile, took to T.V. for a victory lap: Nawaz League stood vindicated, and haters could hate forevermore.

Report received, Mr. Khan emerged tired. The C.J. had ‘brilliantly conducted his probe’, and Mr. Khan accepted the results ‘for the sake of democracy’s future’. We heard, we thought, a page turning.

So to the report. Every story needs a sap, and ours is the Election Commission. The E.C.P. was making messes every step of the way: it miscalculated excess ballots. It relied on too few printing presses. Its voter ink may as well have been strawberry jam (N.A.D.R.A. laughed it out). Its fancy-sounding ‘Results Management System’ crashed on the day of the polls. And it had no storage space of its own, with polling bags dumped in treasuries.

In sum, the polls were legal, but the E.C.P. was lazy. Yet that appears a conclusion far too fine, going by the report itself. Consider: post-poll storage was so inadequate, there were ‘chances of persons entering the sealed rooms and interfering with [the post-election material…] by keeping it in such a manner, its evidentiary value becomes greatly reduced if not destroyed (695)’.

Even disregarding malicious intent, the Returning Officers were, at best, uninformed (691), and at worst, incompetent (690). Sites in Balochistan were blatantly shut down (694), but who cares about Balochistan?

Punjab’s Provincial Election Commissioner was working on a plane separate from the E.C.P. (701), and ‘did not seem to report matters to the E.C.P. during polling day’ (702). Elections were left ‘in large part […] to the Provincial Election Commissioner to deal with’ (705). Then there’s the judiciary’s hemming and hawing over the four initial election cases, for years on end.

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves: even if the elections were squeaky-clean, the P.M.L.N. would still win, and win big. Then there’s that same closure business: 2013 is over, and it’s time we found our full stop. This report offers as much.

But there were instances of rigging on 11 May — as admitted by all parties, and there are loose ends all over this report. Those require tying up.

If only for the future. Because the hard fact is, more often than not, elections are rigged in this country — there’s little point in the joys of democracy if we fail to meet its first test. The ancients tell us the cleanest polls were held under slurry Yahya Khan, but that’s a joke: free and fair polls mean the winner going on to govern — not ethnically cleansing their vote bank.

Then there was ‘77, rigged to the point of parody: candidates filing their papers against the P.M. were ‘detained’, with some thousand P.N.A. men picked up across the country. The P.N.A. president was arrested three days before Mr. Bhutto greeted the new assembly, and unarmed protestors were shot dead in Lahore and Karachi. Yes, no one held polls quite like the Chairman.

As for ‘85, polling under the junta was a moot point: a party-less election is no election at all. Today’s Punjab government (most of whom were introduced to the world courtesy ‘85) would do well to remember that with its own local bodies elections.

The ‘90s gave us General Beg running funds to his favourites like a less intelligent Sheldon Adelson (though Shelly uses his own cash), while ‘02 saw farishtay come down from the clouds and swing the balloting overnight.

Yes, nowhere is the need for electoral reform felt more urgently than here. That urgency is to the P.T.I.’s credit, if only because civil nafarmani, i.e. not paying taxes and storming the Red Zone, was miles from the answer.

So here we stand, with a smarting P.M.L.N. and a chastened P.T.I., hoping to set a precedent. And N. League seems to have caught onto as much: the P.M.’s called for drawing up ‘comprehensive’ electoral reforms via a panel of wise men. That could mean legislation and even, it’s whispered, a constitutional amendment (but probably neither, going by most P.M.L.N. committees).

Reform would mean finally holding that census, finally making polling staff accountable to the E.C.P., finally broadening the base for voter verification, finally excluding sectarian supremacists via party re-registration.

And reform, in three words, means electronic voting machines — there’s just no way around it. Benefits include cutting out fraud, rapid speed, in-built biometric voter verification, instant feedback to determine voter intent, and greater accessibility for the disabled.

The case against is the usual bellyaching: it’s a heavy investment for a poor country, they say. But that investment will be offset by the cost of printing, storing and transporting millions of ballots (and paying the people that count them) again and again.

Then there’s hacking: granted, E.V.M.s are not tamper-proof. But flipping a constituency would require tampering with too many systems at the same time, a process that is long and arduous. And, as the Indian Supreme Court has called for, instituting a voter-verified paper audit trail will minimise chances of fraud anyway.

There are no two ways about it: E.V.M.s are the way forward.

Seventy years ago last week saw Potsdam, when the Big Three met to carve up Germany amid the ruins of war. Around the same time, election results filtered in from Britain: Churchill had been defeated by shy Attlee, mocked as ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. The news stunned Stalin far more than Whitehall, with reports going as far as Stalin wondering why he hadn’t rigged it. The former bank robber would go on about Churchill’s defeat — and the mysteries of representative government — for months.

In its eighth year of uninterrupted democracy, it’s time Pakistan, too, surprise the world.