October 18, 2021

Proportional Representation: Is Pakistan Ready for a New Electoral System?


Illustrations by Aniqa Haider




proportional representation election-mechanism

It’s 12 February 2018. The eyes and ears of the Pakistani news media are tuned to a district in south Punjab. Lodhran. There, a by-election is being held for a National Assembly seat previously occupied by the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) leader Jahangir Khan Tareen.

Mr. Tareen, considered by many to be the PTI’s financial backbone, was disqualified two months ago from his assembly membership by the Supreme Court. The court had found him guilty on charges of dishonesty in foreign assets declaration. He cannot contest elections again. In his place, the PTI has nominated his son, Ali Tareen, to run for the National Assembly seat.

The young Tareen, a baby-faced business student, has little prior experience of electoral politics but many political experts believe his family name and his family’s resources should be enough to secure him a place in the federal legislature.

When the results pour in, shock is etched on the TV screens. News headlines scream “upset.”

Little-known candidate Iqbal Shah, who belongs to PTI’s rival political party the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has won. The result is extraordinary, no doubt. It contradicts many long-held beliefs about Pakistan’s domestic politics: the rich man wins, the kinship vote prevails, a political dynasty prospers. None of that has happened, obviously. As political pundits and anchor-persons rush to make sense of the result, one figure is repeated again and again. Twenty-six thousand, 26,000. This is the approximate margin of Mr. Shah’s victory. The number of votes by which the PTI candidate fell behind.

In the frenzied reporting that follows, another figure is almost forgotten. The number of people who voted for Mr. Ali Tareen: 87,571. A week later, when the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will release the final tally, it would be easy to tell that this number represents 40% of the votes polled in the by-election.

Four in 10 people who voted in the Lodhran by-election get nothing out of it.

Fast forward to five months later and it is general elections in Pakistan. In Hafizabad in central Punjab, people turn out in force on 25 July to cast their votes. The PML-N’s former federal minister Saira Afzal Tarar is running for re-election for her National Assembly seat. This is one of several constituencies in central Punjab that will decide the future of the PML-N’s politics. The party’s fortunes have dwindled since the Supreme Court disqualified its leader and three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from holding public office and an accountability court sentenced him to prison.

The popularity of rival political party PTI, on the other hand, is on the rise in Punjab and Ms. Tarar is expected to have a tough contest with PTI’s Shoukat Bhatti. Tension rises when the results are not released even several hours after the polls have closed. When the vote count is finally revealed four days later, Ms. Tarar has secured 40% of the total valid votes polled. But PTI’s Bhatti has won 8,300 votes or 2 percentage points more than her.

It is game over for the former minister, and disappointment for over 150,000 voters in her constituency.

These two examples are not outliers.

Media for Transparency’s analysis of ECP data shows that in the 2013 National Assembly elections almost half the votes cast nationwide went to candidates who lost the elections. One in every two Pakistanis who voted was never represented in the federal legislature.

In the July 2018 general elections, the margin of victory in 79 out of 270 National Assembly constituencies was either less than 5% of the votes polled or less than 10,000 total votes, according to a report by the Free and Fair Election Network. That means three in every 10 constituencies had contests that were very close, but resulted in only a section of the voting public getting represented.

Much has been said and done about pre- and post-election rigging allegations in Pakistan in the past. But is there a more basic flaw in the country’s electoral system? A flaw that might prevent hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis from getting any meaningful representation in the legislatures, even when free and fair elections are held.


The Problem of Representation

proportional representation disproportion

Pakistan’s electoral system follows the “First Past the Post” or FPTP mechanism for direct elections to the national and provincial assemblies. If the term First Past the Post makes you think of a 100m race, that is entirely accurate. The FPTP electoral system mimics a track-and-field event where the athlete who crosses the finish line first is declared the winner.

Take Pakistan’s National Assembly, for example. Each of its 272 general seats represents a single separate constituency of voters defined by the ECP based on a population census. The constituencies are spread out over four provinces, the federal capital, and the until-recently federally-administered tribal areas. Pakistan has over 100 political parties, so several candidates run for election for each general seat. Each registered voter, however, can cast only one vote to pick from the list of candidates in the voter’s constituency. The candidate who receives a simple majority of the polled votes wins the seat in the assembly. The rest go home.

In other words, winner takes all.

But what happens to the people who did not vote for the politician who got elected? As Shakespeare wrote, “ay, there’s the rub.”

The people who voted for the losing candidates are supposed to be represented by the winner, even if their ideas do not align with the winning politician’s ideology, worldview, political priorities, you get the drift.

Almost half the votes cast nationwide in the 2013
National Assembly elections went to candidates
who lost the elections

The ECP data for the 2013 and 2018 National Assembly elections reveal a disparity in the votes received by political parties and their share of seats in the assembly.

The PML-N, which formed the federal government in 2013, bagged around 33% of the total votes polled in the entire country. But it won around 46% of the seats in the National Assembly.

The Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) received 15% of the popular vote but only had 13% representation in the 2013 assembly. The PTI, which polled better than the PPPP, had 17% of total votes cast but only 10% of the total general seats.

The disproportion is obvious.

In the 2018 National Assembly general elections, however, the PTI received nearly 32% of the around 53 million votes cast across the nation. It won 116 seats in the assembly, or 43% of the 270 seats on which elections were held.

The discrepancy gets more pronounced if a provincial breakdown of National Assembly seats is examined.

In the 2013 general elections, the PPPP won only three seats in the National Assembly from Punjab but its candidates in Punjab received around 2.8 million votes, which should have been amounted to 15 National Assembly seats from Punjab.

From Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PPPP should have had three seats in the National Assembly based on its 7% popular-vote share in the province but it did not win a single seat. The JI, on the other hand, had three National Assembly seats from KP in 2013 but its popular-vote share was around the same as PPPP.

The number of seats won by major political parties in 2013 and 2018 are either more or less than their share of votes. Barring any coincidence where a party’s vote bank and its total seats in the assembly are in proportion, the data hints at a problem of under-representation of the voting public.

The issue seems even more severe if the voter turnout is taken into account. According to the ECP’s statistics, the voter turnout has been around 50% on average over the past three general elections. If the voters who opted for losing candidates are factored in, then the National Assembly at best represents just over a quarter of Pakistan’s total registered voters.


The Proportional Alternative

The following map shows the electoral systems of the lower house of national legislatures. Use the filter above the map to select an electoral system and see on the map which countries practice it. You may also read brief descriptions of the electoral systems given below the map.

One of the few scholarly attempts to look at an alternative electoral system for Pakistan was made in a 1993 book titled Proportional Representation and Revival of Democratic Process in Pakistan. Written by the Deputy Amir of Jamaat-e Islami (JI) Professor Khurshid Ahmed, the book argued in favour of adopting the Proportional Representation or PR system in the country.

Mr. Ahmed, a former JI senator, described proportional representation as a concept that reflects the support the political parties have among the masses.

The PR electoral system overcomes the issues faced by the FPTP method by giving each political party only as much representation in the assemblies as the votes it received. Suppose that a party got 30% of the votes cast in an election, then it will get exactly 30% representation in the legislature in a PR system.

The alternative is not an exception if the electoral systems of representative democracies in the world are studied. According to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, 85 countries in the world practice some method of proportional representation. These include Norway, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, and Indonesia.

In comparison, only 63 countries have implemented the FPTP system, according to the Network, which is an international collaborative effort to promote transparency in electoral processes.

The interactive illustration below shows a comparison of National Assembly party positions with respect to general seats after the 2013 elections. Use the tabs to switch between First Past the Post and Proportional Representation views. In Proportional Representation, each party gets as many seats as its share in the votes polled in the elections. You will notice that the position of major political parties changes significantly in the 2013 National Assembly if Proportional Representation is adopted.

Note: For the purpose of this illustration, the party positions under Proportional Representation have been calculated on the basis of province-wise seats in the 2013 National Assembly. For each political party, its popular vote share in each province was converted to an equivalent share of National Assembly seats from that province. For example, if a party had received 50% of the total votes cast in Punjab in the 2013 National Assembly elections, it would get 74 of the 148 Punjab general seats on this chart.

A 2010 University of North Carolina study titled Electoral System Reform Options in Pakistan recommended replacing the FPTP with PR in Pakistan. The ECP briefly considered this recommendation at that time, according to The Express Tribune.

But the current ECP administration was clueless about the study and its recommendation.

“The news (about the study) is old,” one ECP official told Media for Transparency. “If there had been any development, it would have been public knowledge by now.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak with the media, said the ECP library did not have a copy of the University of North Carolina study either.

Yet, Pakistan is no stranger to proportional representation.

Out of the 342 seats in the National Assembly, 70 are reserved for women and Pakistani non-Muslims. These reserved seats are filled through PR — political parties get the reserved seats based on the number of general seats they won in the direct elections.

That’s not all. Members of the upper house of the national Parliament – the Senate – are picked by the elected representatives of federal and provincial legislatures through a PR voting model.

But this familiarity does not seem to have translated into efforts by legislators to alter the direct elections mechanism.


Politicians Speak

proportional representation arif alvi

Election reforms have been at the centre of political discourse in Pakistan since the 2013 general elections when allegations of rigging and subsequent protests against the ruling party emerged. However, the major political parties have avoided any discussion on changing the format of the elections as a whole.

Despite the fact that the PML-N has benefitted from the FPTP system in the past, the party’s Chairman and Senator Raja Zafarul Haq showed support for the alternative.

“In the First Past the Post system, those who support the losing candidate are left unrepresented, even if it is a difference of a few votes,” Mr. Haq said.

He said it is “not a bad idea” to give deserved representation to the under-represented who are neither part of any legislature nor any government at present.

PPPP Member National Assembly (MNA) Nafisa Shah was satisfied with the current arrangement. She said Pakistan has a mixed system where there is FPTP for general elections and PR for women, minorities, and the Senate.

“I think there is an excellent balance (right now),” Ms. Shah said.

Her comments are ironic given the Peoples Party’s 1970 manifesto that actually supported the idea of proportional representation. The manifesto criticised the FPTP system as “the most efficient mechanism for giving preponderance to the propertied class” and claimed it would reform the electoral system to “give primacy to political programs.”

“This will be done by introducing the system of voting for party lists and not individuals,” the manifesto stated. “The number of candidates elected in each party will be proportionate to the total number of valid votes.”

If proportional representation is brought into Pakistan, there will be a big change. Good and competent people will come to the Parliament — Sahibzada Tariqullah, former Jamaat-e Islami MNA

Ms. Shah said the PPPP did fulfil its promise of a proportional representation system by setting up the Senate in the ’70s. The Senate’s members are elected through proportional representation and underprivileged political workers are given a chance to represent the federation, she said.

“Two of our Senators are people who would never have imagined contesting general elections because it costs too much,” Ms. Shah said, referring to Keshoo Bai (Krishna Kohli) and Anwar Lal Dean, both from Sindh.

However, the Senate elections are only open to voting by the members of national and provincial assemblies who in turn were elected directly based on the FPTP method.

Dr. Arif Alvi, a former PTI MNA and current President of Pakistan, pointed out the indirect nature of the Senate elections and stressed that it cannot be compared to PR.

“Senate does not reflect the common voter,” he said. “Reserving seats for women and electing an upper house like this is practiced in many countries but it does not make us a PR democracy. It should reflect the common voter.”

Dr. Alvi, while speaking with Media for Transparency, sounded like a vociferous supporter of proportional representation for general seats of the National Assembly.

“There should be a reflection of ‘one man, one vote’ which is not present in the FPTP, where votes are lost,” Dr. Alvi said. “Every person’s vote should have value.”

JI’s former MNA Sahibzada Tariqullah expressed similar views.

“If proportional representation is brought into Pakistan, there will be a big change,” he said. “Good and competent people will come to the Parliament.”

Mr. Tariqullah said people would vote for parties and manifestos instead of Individuals in a PR-based electoral system, which will prompt the parties to consider more eligible candidates.

Most of the current and former parliamentarians contacted for this report seemed to support the PR system. However, none admitted that there was any near-term agenda to legislate on this matter. One reason could be that even though the proportional representation system looks attractive on the surface, it might be complex in practice.


The Working


There are a several variations in terms of implementing the PR system.

The simplest is the “closed party list” mechanism, in which each party creates a list of its candidates in a fixed order. The voters only vote for the political parties. When the votes are tallied, the parties are given seats in proportion to the percentage of votes they received. The parties then pick as many candidates from the top of their list as the seats they got. For example, if an assembly has 100 seats, each party list will have 100 candidate names. If one party wins 10 seats, it will pick the first 10 candidates from its list for the assembly.

Many countries now use an “open party list” format, according to FairVote, a US-based electoral reform research centre. In this format, the voters are also shown the names of the party candidates on the ballot. The voters vote for the candidates. These votes are also considered for the candidates’ political parties. When the votes are tallied, the parties get seats based on the votes they received for all their candidates. But when it comes to selecting which candidates will represent the party, the candidates’ individual votes are used. For example, if one party wins 10 seats in a 100-seat assembly, it will pick those 10 candidates from its list which got the most votes.

For more details on varieties of Proportional Representation, please check the ACE encyclopedia

In Pakistan, the proportional representation variation used for the Senate elections is called a Single Transferable Vote (STV). This is slightly more complicated because the voters have to rank their preferred candidates on a ballot paper.

In this method, voters grade their candidates from most favourite to the least. A threshold of votes is decided beforehand based on the number of available seats and the voters. Candidates need to cross this threshold to be elected. If a voter votes for a candidate who has already crossed the threshold, the vote is transferred to the voter’s second preference. In this case, no vote is wasted. This voting method is fair in theory but often criticised for being complex and tedious.

Dr. Alvi, Pakistan’s current Head of State, was not concerned about these arguments of complexity.

He seemed to think a PR method would not be as tricky as the Single Transferable Vote mechanism used in Senate elections, for which he said the counting process was so complicated political parties hire the services of mathematicians. If Pakistan could use the Single Transferable Vote method for Senate, Dr. Alvi seemed to say, it should also be fine with proportional representation.

“The counting process might be complex, but every vote should have value,” he said.

Countries around the world appear to have overcome the complexity of PR. In fact, among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the 10 countries with the highest voter turnout employ PR as their election mechanism. Could a PR system improve the voter turnout in Pakistan as it did for some of the OECD countries?


Democratic Participation

proportional representation raja zafarul haq

It is understandable that voters might be disappointed when their favourite candidates lose. Perhaps a worse feeling is to be represented by someone you dislike. Would this demotivate people from voting in future elections?

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the president of the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), believes voters should not be discouraged since democracy is a process and participation is crucial.

“In the First-Past-the-Post method if you vote for the losing candidate, it does not mean you’re not contributing to the democracy,” Mr. Mehboob said. “It will be a very short-sighted way of looking at it, if my candidate didn’t win I didn’t contribute to the democracy.”

Saad Rasool, a lawyer and political commentator, said the voting percentage cannot be increased by only changing the voting mechanism.

“In all the democracies of the world, it is the responsibility of the political parties to mobilise the voters,” he said. “The problem is that there will always be a minority which will not be represented in the parliament whether it is one system or the other.”

Perhaps Mr. Rasool is correct about the impossibility of eliminating inequalities completely. But there might be one structural inequality in Pakistan’s electoral system that needs immediate attention.


The Money in Politics

proportional representation money in politics

Elections are a costly business in Pakistan. For the 2018 general elections, The ECP had a budget of nearly Rs. 21 billion to conduct the elections. Running an election campaign is even more expensive. The Elections Act 2017 forbids candidates from spending more than Rs. 4 million on a National Assembly election campaign. But in the absence of strict oversight and lack of official data, independent estimates suggest political parties and candidates spent hundreds of millions on their campaigns during the 2018 election season.

The average monthly household income in Pakistan was around Rs. 35,000 in 2015-16, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. The average Pakistani citizen might need to save money for decades in order to run for elections.

The high cost of managing an election campaign means political parties typically look for financially-strong candidates who can run their own campaigns and raise funds for the party. Electoral politics in Pakistan has historically seen rural and urban elites use kinship networks or patronage to achieve and stay in power. Landlords, wealthy industrialists, real estate tycoons, and businesspersons – all groups that have a commercial interest in gaining and retaining power – have developed dynastic holds on constituencies but might not care much for political beliefs. In domestic political parlance, experts often call this the “politics of the electables.”

Even though in the 2018 elections many so-called electables lost their constituencies, the pre-election discussions were dominated by mention of which party had more electable candidates. The issue got so big that the PTI chairman and current Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan had to confess he needed the financial strength and mobilisation skills of the electables to win elections.

Electoral victory is the benefit political parties derive from their relationship with electable candidates, but they might be doing it at the cost of loyalty and legislative performance. Electable candidates could divert a political party away from its core beliefs and could switch to other political parties if it suits their interests.

PR could reduce the “money game” in Pakistani politics — Raja Zafarul Haq, PML-N Chairman and Senator

The proportional representation system might offer help to change this hijacking of the electorate’s mandate.

“This (PR system) would reduce the influence of traditional leaders, the vested interest, and the traditional power brokers and thus improve the quality of politics in the country,” JI Deputy Amir Mr. Ahmed wrote in his 1993 book. “The workers will be trained in light of ideology….During elections, the discussion will concentrate on party ideology and programs.”

This would be possible because in the proportional representation system, the voters do not vote for individual candidates. Rather they vote for political parties and their decisions could be based on the manifestos and policies of the parties.

Mr. Haq, the PML-N Chairman, said PR could reduce the “money game” in Pakistani politics.

But PPPP MNA Ms. Shah said it is not correct to assume that the FPTP system makes elections expensive. She blamed the “capitalist parties” PML-N and PTI for causing an increase in the cost of election campaigns by dumping money on their bids. She said if a party has a strong program, it can get its political workers elected to the assembly.

There is also no guarantee if big money will not corrupt a PR-based voting system. Mr. Tariqullah seemed to believe the Senate elections could serve as a cautionary tale.

“Senate elections process is also flawed,” he claimed. “People are entering the Senate on the basis of money; they get elected through buying and selling of votes.”

Another concern for some is the party list itself. This is the list of legislators a party has nominated to fill the seats awarded to it in the assembly based on its popular vote.

Mr. Mehboob of PILDAT said the Pakistani political parties have weak internal democratic structures. If PR is imposed, he said, it might only lead to a further strengthening of the party chairman’s control on the decision-making process. Names of party loyalists and sycophants might end up on the list, he said.

“In our system we are already practicing proportional representation in a very limited and distorted way, that is the reserved seats for women and minorities,” Mr. Mehboob said. “Looking at the way how that list is made, one can only imagine what will happen if a list is made for all of the seats.”

He was referring to allegations of nepotism against the political parties in choosing candidates for the reserved seats.

Mr. Haq said he believes once PR is adopted, things will improve with the passage of time. As far as the selection of blue-eyed candidates is concerned, the Senator had a matter-of-fact reply.

“Isn’t it happening right now?” he said.


Political Circus

proportional representation voteAt present, Pakistan has over 100 political parties that contest elections. Only 12 won some representation in the National Assembly in the July 2018 elections. With every vote accounted for, the critics of PR believe it might lead to saturation of political parties in the legislature and result in coalition governments.

“Our society is very heterogeneous,” Mr. Mehboob said. “When PR is applied to such a society, the votes get fragmented; many parties will emerge out of it.”

He said if currently there are 12 parties represented in the assembly, a PR system might lead to as many as 30 parties.

“So we will never get a stable government,” he said.

Ms. Nafisa Shah pointed out a similar problem. She compared PPPP’s 2008 coalition government with the single-majority PML-N government in 2013.

“The PML-N government was far more decisive (because of the single-majority),” she said. “They could make more decisions and could get things done, even if we may differ with them and their policies.”

But Ms. Shah also said the majority government got away with checks on spending.

The JI Deputy Amir Mr. Ahmed argued in his 1993 book on PR that a few instances do not prove a relationship between PR and the number of political parties.

“(In) countries where this system (PR) has been operational over long periods of time, the number of political parties has remained fairly stable,” he wrote. “It is in accordance with the spirit of democracy and can lead to harnessing best talents and maximum popular support in the service of the state.”

There is also an idea of “minimum threshold” in proportional democracies. A party that receives fewer votes than a threshold of, say, 5 or 10% of votes polled does not go to the Parliament. But to put all this in place, the Pakistani Constitution and the elections law will need to be amended.


The Switch

proportional representation elections

Article 51 of the Constitution of Pakistan gives guidelines for the election mechanism for the Parliament. The guidelines mention use of proportional representation for Senate elections and “single member constituencies” for the National Assembly. The PR system usually relies on multi-member constituencies.

Mr. Rasool, the lawyer, said two or three amendments might be needed to change the electoral system.

“We have not effectively written such a clause for the National Assembly,” he said. “Thus there is not much clarity so we will have to amend clauses related to the National Assembly.”

More importantly, Mr. Rasool said, the Parliament will have to amend the Elections Act 2017. He said prior to the 2017 law, the Senate and National Assembly elections were governed separately by the Senate Election Act 1975 and the Representation of People Act 1976 respectively.

But amendments would only follow after national debate and consensus. As of now, no political party except the JI has mentioned proportional representation in its manifesto.

President Dr. Alvi had a firm “no” in response to a question about whether the PTI had considered making PR-based electoral reforms a part of its election manifesto. He said there are other pressing concerns in Pakistan that need to be addressed first.

Ms. Shah mentioned isolated chatter within the PPPP about lost votes but said there had not been any structured discussion.

Instead of changing the entire election mechanism, Ms. Shah stressed political party reforms.

“We need reform in political parties as we are moving towards a consensus in the society that democracy should stay come rain, come shine,” she said. “I think there will be an increase in the pressure from other institutions on making political parties more transparent.”

Mr. Haq said there was once a discussion in the PML-N about adopting the PR system and there were many people in favour of the system.

Leaving aside what the political parties think of PR, is the system ideal for Pakistan and will it work any better than the existing format?

Mr. Rasool said ideally PR should work. But, he said, if it were an ideal world FPTP would have been working efficiently by now too.

“Systems are not perfect; they are not made perfect with laws,” he said. “Systems are made by implementation by the people.”

He said it is important that the participants of the democratic process, the election candidates, and the voters implement the system in its spirit and refrain from contributing to its lapses.

Editor’s Note: The interviews for this story were done in January and February 2018. The story was updated after Pakistan’s 2018 general elections and published for the first time in September.

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