Several inadequacies of our democratic system can be traced to the constituency-based electoral system, that has been blindly borrowed from the British parliamentary system. Our own sociological and economic realities have been ignored under the current system. Without getting rid of these constituencies, at least for the National Assembly, there is little hope that our parliament would ever be able to deliver on national issues.
Our parliament comes into existence through electoral constituencies which on the principle of first-past-the-post system return legislators to national and provincial assemblies. The local dynamics of individual electoral constituencies play a significant role in determining election results for the National Assembly that is supposed to legislate and make public policies on the issues of nationwide significance.
In our electoral system, the clout of individual candidates is as significant as the support base of a political party. Political parties do have their core support bases in many constituencies, but they vary from region to region and are more relevant in urban areas than semi-urban or rural countryside where individuals call the shots. This system has thrown up so-called ‘electables’ in each constituency referring to those influential people who have their personal vote-banks.
Constituency-politics runs on the basis of patron-client relationship, browbeating of the poor into submission and, in many cases, outright purchase of votes at the time of voting in lieu of cash. In rural constituencies dominated by big landlords and tribal chiefs a candidate’s control over the administration, police in particular, determines a candidate’s standing.
To keep the poor on his side, local politicians ensure not only the posting of pliable officers in the district administration and police stations, but in many cases also harbour hardened criminals. Protection of criminals works two ways: instilling fear among opponents and pressurising reluctant voters into submission. In urban areas, where the poor cannot be influenced through police, cash is used to buy votes.
In most cases, our people do not decide about their choice in an election as individuals but an entire nucleus or extended family makes a decision to be followed by all the members. Extended families and clans make a joint decision and candidates negotiate with the heads of these families to win their support and in turn make promises of patronage in the form of local development and jobs for their young ones.
At the local level, a politician works as a broker between the state and the community. He is supposed to help the people in postings and transfer of government officials thus meddling in the affairs of administration and forcing them to violate rules and regulations and political neutrality. The more accessible he is to his constituents, the better are the chances of him having a larger personal vote-base. If a politician is not helpful in such matters, he loses his support in the constituency.
Sustaining the support base in a constituency requires from a politician to run a secretariat all year to stay in contact with the people of the area. The huge expenditures come not from the pocket of the politician but the contractors and businessmen who are favoured by the politician with government contracts of projects on inflated rates.
To keep the poor on their side, local politicians ensure not only the posting of pliable officers in the district administration and police stations, but in many cases, also harbour hardened criminals
The dictates of constituency politics keep members of the parliament tied to local issues instead of legislation and public policies of wider significance. The members of the National Assembly mostly remain absent from the sessions and keep visiting government departments for getting the local demands met.
Thanks to the constituency politics, the role of money in contesting elections has climbed to a new high. Normally, these days, a candidate spends around Rs 100 million on his campaign way beyond the legal limit besides billions of rupees spent on media campaigns by political parties.
This system of elections benefits clannish politics as candidates hailing from major biradaris (clans) in constituencies enjoy inherent advantage over their competitors. Biradari’s support combined with the backing of a political party and money makes up a winning formula. In certain areas, sectarian groups have their large support bases, thereby influence the voting pattern.
The constituency based, first-past-the-post system of elections is heavily skewed in favour of big landlords, tribal chiefs and moneyed people. It results in politicisation of civil administration including police and patronage of criminals by politicians. It promotes lawlessness and corruption and discourages ideological, programme-based politics. The electables are the main disease of our democratic system.
Inherited from the British Raj, the constituency-based political system has acquired a sacred sacred among the political parties and the liberal intelligentsia that oppose any change to it. No good has come out of constituency-based politics neither in Pakistan nor in India, where assemblies are packed with people having criminal records. If we want to improve our democratic system and governance, we need to consider alternative electoral systems that could be, partly if not wholly, devoid of these shortcomings.
One option is to consider adopting the list system through proportional representation at least for the National Assembly. The allocation of seats to political parties as per their share in the cast vote can strengthen a programme-based politics and election of such candidates who are more oriented towards national issues than local concerns. The local issues can be left to the provincial assemblies and municipal bodies.
The writer is a Lahore-based freelance journalist and media trainer
Published in Daily Times, September 14th 2017.