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The PPP-led government, despite all its failures in tackling the issues of massive corruption, bad governance and the worsening law and order situation, should certainly be credited for some of its achievements on the national political front. The adoption of the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments to the constitution strengthened the institutional role of parliament, established a consultative framework for the selection of the chief election commissioner and caretaker prime minister and enhanced the independence and transparency of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

The national consensus on the name of the dedicated and honest personality Fakhruddin G Ibrahim as election commissioner is a sign of the development of democratic values in Pakistan, a country that has been ruled by military dictators for more than half the period of its existence.

An assessment mission by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) has expressed optimism regarding the upcoming general elections and said that the 2013 elections present an opportunity for Pakistan to continue its reform momentum and advance its democratic transition.

To address the need for pressing electoral reforms, the Election Commission, with its five years strategic plan for 2010-2014, is preparing for the operation of 80,000 polling stations and training of 630,000 election personnel for the general elections. As per the November 2012 agreement of the National Judicial Policy-making Committee, judicial officers instead of civil servants would be appointed as the returning officers. To facilitate the voters and ensure maximum turnout, according to the plan, the polling stations should not be at a distance of more than two kilometres.

Besides restricting candidates and political parties to transport voters to the venue, the existing law also imposes campaign expenditure limits. The caps are set at one million rupees for a provincial assembly candidate and 1.5 million rupees for a National Assembly candidate. One of the numerous and important reforms undertaken by the Election Commission includes the release of the country’s most up-to-date electronic electoral roll that it produced in collaboration with NADRA. To date out of 85 million voters on the list, close to 12 million have checked their registration status via SMS. The ECP is establishing 14 new election tribunals in order to make the tracking system for the electoral complaints more efficient, transparent and speedy, as opposed to the previous practice where complaints used to be laying pending for years in the past.

Cautious optimism prevails in the country regarding these democratic developments, however; there are some issues and challenges that still need to be addressed if we want to continue this progress towards democratic governance.

The foremost issue confronting the nation is security. With all these reforms underway, the worsening law-and-order situation remains one of the major concerns. In the general elections of 2008, the majority of candidates was mostly confined to their homes and could hold only corner meetings. The rest were reaching out to the people either through private FM radios or limited public rallies. The situation has now gone from bad to worse. Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Karachi and Fata are some of the most dangerous areas in focus.

The rise in militant activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and targeted killings in Karachi and Balochistan present a bleak picture before the coming elections. This situation calls for a full-fledged role of the army and the law-enforcing agencies to keep the law-and-order situation under control during the elections. Sixty percent of the country’s population is under the age of 35. Out of 85 million registered voters, 47 percent on voter rolls are between the ages of 18 and 35 and 19 percent between 18 and 24. The ability of political parties to capitalise on the hopes and frustrations of this most vulnerable class would be a test case for their influence and continued legitimacy. Out of 85 million, some 37 million are women voters.

However, it is estimated that 10 million more eligible female voters have not been registered. It is an irony that in the 342-member’s National Assembly that draws 60 women on reserved seats from across the country, there is no single seat for women from the tribal areas. It is recommended that the election results in a given constituency where the women are prohibited to cast their vote, though with mutual consent of the contesting candidates, should be declared null and void.

Fair and Free Election Network (FAFEN), a network of 42 civil society organisations, is preparing for the deployment of 43,000 non-partisan election monitors across the country. However, thorough campaigns for public awareness on the importance of the electoral process through the media may make this upcoming event a great success, thereby leading the country to a progressive, prosperous, integrated and tolerant society where violence, extremism and terrorism hardly find any room to flourish.

More than 90 private TV channels, coupled with scores of FM radios channels, and the same number of print media outlets with over 20,000 journalists across the country, can play a vital role in educating the public on the importance of the electoral process and facilitating their participation in the upcoming mega political event. Similarly, there should be a proper mechanism to enforce electoral regulations and codes of conduct and make sure all licensed media outlets adhere to the ECP’s code of conduct for the media.

The use of social media could also be the best tool for broadening voter engagement, and helping to raise awareness regarding the process of elections and ensuring the voters get their queries and feedback through to the ECP.

The writer heads the Fata Research Centre (FRC) in Islamabad. Email: khan

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