There is a fascination amongst the intelligentsia of Pakistan with change – upsetting the status quo and age-old political traditions and structures. And for good reason. Clearly, what we’ve got in Pakistan is not very functional, effective and capable in terms of delivering according to the requirements of the modern fate of our times. Often espoused is the notion that the current electoral system for entry into the parliament – constituency based first-past-the-post, winner-takes-it-all – is to blame for the reinforcement of parochialism via the emergence of ‘electables’ and the amplified significance of kinship and clientele networks while the programmatic ideologies of political parties take a backseat. Moreover, this system completely nullifies the votes of the runners up contestant, and forces the voters to rationalize their voting preferences based around probability, rather than free will. I mean, who wants to vote for a candidate that has little or no chance of winning in a single constituency – many PPP voters switched to either the PTI or the PML-N in NA – 122, in the infamous by-election, held in October, 2015.

It is suggested that a proportional representation system is better suited to the needs of the Pakistani polity. Because there are too many variations that exist throughout the world, I shall assume a basic version of proportional representation: a system where the voters vote for political parties, rather than individual candidates in their constituencies, and parties with the highest overall percentage of votes emerge in parliament. A threshold, a minimum percentage of the total vote count for a party to be eligible to parliament, is also listed, which can range up to anything between 5%, as practiced in some Western European nations, and relatively high 10%, as practiced in Turkey. Proportional representation systems work best if the emergence of multi-party dynamics in the parliament is sought as an end in itself. More parties mean more necessity of dialogue and reconciliation within the federal structures – which is perceived to be better for democracy as it tends to check inherent authoritarian tendencies. However, this can be potentially disastrous for the legitimacy of governments – as was the case with the PPP-led coalition government.

On the other hand, the preponderance of the military and civil bureaucracy in the power configurations of Pakistan cannot be denied, and multi-party dynamics facilitate rather than diminish that destiny. Proportional representation works best if there are several administrative units, rather than the imbalanced federal setup that we currently possess. It is every left-wingers dream that the dominance of the Punjab as the central player in the numbers game be curtailed to allow for a more egalitarian state of affairs, in terms of the equilibrium between the federating units. Whether introducing more provinces or administrative units promotes ethnic and linguistic nationalism, factionalism and administrative chaos remains a question in history. Any serious student of politics will agree that the devolution of powers necessitated by the 18th Amendment in the constitution of Pakistan, to the provinces and the local governments, has been a cumbersome administrative labyrinth, which has led to the birth of more problems, rather than solutions. This is not to deny that the spirit of the legislation was well-intentioned – it is the translation into practice that has been clumsy, self-servicing and hypocritical. It can also be argued that voting primarily on party lines can have the opposite of the intended consequence. Rather than voting for 272 demagogues, we might now have to choose between 10 to 12 demagogues? And which sounds more democratic? There was a hilarious argument in an English daily that we need to get rid of the first-past-the-post system because of its colonial legacy and henceforth, nefarious designs.

However, the biggest issue with the proportional representation system is listed as follows, and might help to remove the apparently conservative nature of my arguments. What if a sectarian party, or a fundamentalist alliance of religious zealots is formed prior to the elections? It is highly probable that such an association can easily gain around 15-20 percent of the total vote count, isn’t it? In the first past the post system, many candidates with an overt, or a covert, fundamentalist leaning are defeated, however, it cannot be denied that in every constituency, there is a small proportion that always votes for such parties. In the 2013 elections, some explicitly sectarian candidates came extremely close to winning National and Provincial Assembly seats, even in ultra-urban constituencies. Such an outcome is dangerous for the process of democratic institutionalization in the country. A bleak reality can emerge, with the advent of a religious bloc with effective veto power in the houses – curtailment of progressive legislation, increased compartmentalization of the society at large, the further marginalization of liberal - wait, that’s already a taboo- let us just say, moderate citizens, and who is to say, motions for ex-communication bills? Further tampering with PPC? Awarding discretionary powers to the CII? Increased moral policing and exploitation in the name of religion? Is it a mere coincidence that Zia flirted with the idea of proportional representation during his ill-fated tenure?

Sometimes it is good to think of alternatives. There are certain prerequisites for democratic consolidation that need to be kept in mind in lieu of the realities of the complex interplay of Pakistani politics. We need to reconcile with the idea that political development is a slow, incremental and evolutionary process and not attempt to inject superfluous drugs into a fragile body that is already finding it very difficult to keep intact.