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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 plurality

In 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 voting

Under 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?!

Reader Comments:

Approval Voting leads the pack

Range Voting, and its simplified form of Approval Voting, are far and away superior to alternatives such as Borda and Instant Runoff Voting.

Runoff Voting is most certainly _not_ "most reflective of the overall consensus". Bayesian regret calculations by Princeton math Ph.D. Warren D. Smith show that Instant Runoff Voting and other runoff systems are among the worst. Whereas Range and Approval are simpler and massively better.

I suggest interested parties read William Poundstone's forthcoming book _Gaming the Vote_ (Feb. 2008), for a closer look at the relative merits of these systems. Or go to RangeVoting.org, the number one scientific resource on the subject of social choice theory.

Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA
415.832.9102

Clay Shentrup, United Kingdom - 27 December, 2007

Preferential - an alternative to 'Runoff'

The Australian experience with the 'preferential' system may be worth examining. The voter numbers their choice with a 1,2,3 ... When officials count the votes, if there is no winner with more than 50%, then then all the votes for the candidate who finished last are redistributed as if that candidate did not exist, and all that person's voters had rather put their number 2 choice as number 1. If necessary the process is repeated for second-last, and so on until a winner with more than 50% is calculated. Very similar outcome as to Runoff, but without the bother of a second election.
An improvement which Australian system lacks is 'optional preferential', where the voter has a choice between numbering 1,2,3, or simply giving their favourite choice a single tick, according to the voter's individual inclination or sophistication.

Larry Cook, Aruba - 28 December, 2007

I don't understand?

I fail to understand the logic & philosophy behind Elections & claims of democracy in Pakistan.
It difficult to comprehend how one person can register as a candidate from multiple seats and jurisdictions/precincts?
Is there no rule that restricts candidacy only from the district of domicile for one given person?
Why when the existing constitution stipulates maximum number of terms a person can become the Prime Minister, candidates expect to revise and amend the constitution or electoral rules? Is'nt this an inappropriate practice to constantly seek to amend the existing rules and constitution to accomodate candidates?
Why dont people or candidates understand that when they campaign in elections some will win and some will lose as this is how elections are finalized based on votes casted by voters, and, why do certain political parties and candidates threaten in advance that if they lost the election it will be understood as dishonesty and rigging by the Election commission or other authorities in administration?
Why cant they live with what the votes decided to be their fate?
Why do we have so many so called political parties in Pakistan, it seems that we have a whole circus full of parties? Don't we have any prescribed method for the creation of political parties?
Why are political parties allowed to collect a fee to endorse a candidate, it appears to be quite strange?
I have many more questions about the politics and elections of our country however I will appreciate anyone answering my inquiry as above.
Best regards.

Matloob Zaman, Pakistan - 29 December, 2007

Ailing Western Political System

People used to say that General Zia-ul-haq fell martyr when he was blown up in the aeroplane. He had stopped the wave of communist charge in Afghanistan and defeated the paganism and theory of Carl Marx with the help of religious volunteers from all around the world. Though it was never disclosed who killed Zia-ul-haq but that is a fact that he had played a great role in history of the era though he had played refrendum like parts just to restore his longer lasting reign. Death of even an unliked person is not a matter of joy as the one who is lovely has also to die one day but also not to be declared every one as a martyr just because he or she is killed. Being martyr is not a so loosely term that be so cheap to apply on all killed. The cause for the one who risks his/her life describes martyrdom.
May be if not all, some people have seen and heard the words of Benazir that she used before western media before coming to Pakistan for her election compaign. She told them she will do her part to suppress religious activities, clear up the Islamic elements in tribal areas and play her part to make the society of Pakistan more liberal and more elastic. She said she will make the top atomic scientist Abdul Qadeer answerable to IAEA as she also sees him responsible for irresponsibility. With the aim like this, one can only attack a country as a worst enemy and not go there then to become a leader in cover. Such a person can be attacked by any one loyal; so need not blame the government, Al Qaida or someone else but blame the western political system and corruption that brings forward such an unending series of double-dealers and selfish lot.


Mohammad Ilyas, Pakistan - 05 January, 2008

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