Are Our Elections Realistic?
27 December, 2007
By Col. Riaz Jafri (Retd)
Some time back President Musharraf created a furore when in an interview to the Fox News TV he counter-questioned the interviewer as to what was more important – the constitution of Pakistan or the Pakistan? No sooner this controversy subsided, a wave of tumultuous fervour for the elections took the nation by the stride. Boycott or not to boycott was the rumpus that not only demolished in its wake the ADPM, the ARD, the COD (Charter of Democracy) and the COD (Charter of Demands) but also created the divide in the ranks of the MMA, the PPP (Aitezaz bowing out to the Black Coats), the MLN whose top leadership had to swallow its pride on the pretext of not leaving the field open to the PML. Only, in the process poor Imran Khan, Qazi Sahib, the venerable Achakzai and few other non-entities were made the escape goats who lost their chance of making to the assemblies, if any. All other major parties and players have embarked upon mass contacting and canvassing by holding public meetings all over the country. They have also issued their acronymic lettered (Es and Ds) party manifestos promising the moon and the stars which the common man is, however, eyeing sceptically. Many still remember the Roti Kapra aur Makan and the Padha Likha Punjab etc. You cannot make fool all the people all the time.
As the Election Day is drawing nearer the leaders as well as the voters must be feeling a sense of déjà vu. Oh yeah, we have been through it more than once before and know how to beat the system. While the opposition leaders’ main strategy is to show great concern for the possible rigging and want every one’s attention focused on the familiar irregularities, the ex ruling parties are concentrating on blowing their own trumpets and exposing the corruption of their adversaries. However, to my mind a much more serious problem is being neglected by all – the political parties, the masses and the Election Commission and that is the fundamental flaws of the voting procedure itself. Our political elections are based on plurality votes, in which a voter selects a single candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Yet, voting theorists argue that plurality voting is one of the worst of all possible choices. It's a terrible system and almost anything looks better compared to it. There are other voting systems such as the Runoff voting, a procedure that eliminates candidates from rankings provided by the voters. Another is the Borda count, a point system devised by the 18th-century French mathematician Jean Charles Borda. A third is approval voting, in which participants may cast votes for as many of the candidates as they choose. Unlike these procedures, the plurality system looks only at a voter's top choice. By ignoring how voters might rank the other candidates, it opens the floodgates to unsettling, paradoxical results.
Singular pluralityIn elections with only two candidates, plurality voting works fine, since the winner is guaranteed to have been the top choice of more than half the voters. But as soon as three or more candidates are on the ballot, the system can run into trouble. In races with a large slate of candidates, as is quite common in Pakistan, plurality voting dilutes voter preferences, creating the possibility of electing a leader whom the vast majority of voters despised and the plurality vote distorted the preferences of the voters. On paper a victory might look overwhelming, but in reality the winner need not have had a broad-based support.
Runoff votingUnder this election system, voters first cast a ballot for one candidate from a list of nominated candidates. The candidate(s) with the plurality of votes (either the first two or those who received a pre-determined proportion of the overall votes) then go on to a runoff election where the majority winner wins the elections. This kind of system though generates high election costs yet, is the most reflective of the overall consensus.
It is quite amusing to see and hear every politician these days clamouring for the restoration of complete democracy and the power to the common man. Some are, however, truthful and ask for the power transferred to the elected representatives – meaning themselves. Well, who on earth can deny their such right but only, if they are the REAL elected representatives, which I think they are not. Let’s take a look at the electoral phenomenon. Hypothetically speaking, if 4 candidates contest the election from a 100 strong constituency and they poll 25, 25, 24 and 26 votes respectively, the one getting 26 votes is the winner. Whereas the fact is that 74 persons cast their votes AGAINST him. Majority has gone against him but he claims to represent them!! How can he/she be the true representative unless a minimum of 51 percent of the voters vote for him/her? Now how many of our such 'elected' representatives poll more than 51 percent of the total votes of a constituency – please note the TOTAL votes of a constituency and not the total votes cast? It is a common knowledge that not all go to the polls for casting their vote. Aren’t such lost votes, strictly speaking, the ‘abstained’ votes? If the number of the serious contenders in any constituency is more than two then it is nearly impossible for any one of them to secure 51 percent majority. In other words, 51 percent or more people of the area reject them. Runoff voting is, therefore, the answer to remove this anomaly. And if for some reason it cannot be introduced soon, we can consider another option of having the ‘NO’ votes. Briefly, each ballot paper should have a ‘box’ for the “None Above” also along with the list and the symbols of the nominated candidates. If a voter does not want to vote for any one of them, he/she could stamp this box. This would be a valid ‘NO’ vote like the ‘Yes’ vote or the ‘Abstain’ vote. At a polling station if there are more ‘NO’ votes than the highest number of votes polled by anyone, all contestants of that constituency should stand not only unelected but also debarred from further contesting. Fresh voting with new contestants’ list and of course with the ‘None Above’ box also included in it, should be held there. In this way the unwanted contestants will be eliminated and pretty soon too.
One thing more, in order to discourage the proliferation of all kind of candidates from Tongawala parties, for each and every repetitive election the candidate must pay a substantial fee to meet the election machinery expenditure – say, Rs. 300,000/= for the MNA and Rs. 150,000/= for the MPA contest. It will help weed out the ‘also-ran’ type of candidates and reduce the comically unrealistic number of the political parties from 93 to a dozen or so.
It is another matter that apart from being a Majority Elect, the representative MUST be honest, selfless, capable, upright, uncompromising, man-of-principle, dedicated, devoted to serve, firm fair and above the board in his dealings with all. How I wish we could find ONE like that?!