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Old Monday, June 17, 2013
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Default In the name of gender

In the name of gender
By Asif Ezdi

The resignation of Fauzia Kasuri from PTI at her failure to win one of the reserved women’s seats in the National Assembly might look like a purely internal matter for the PTI, but has also highlighted some deep flaws in the system of election to these seats and raised the fundamental question whether it should not be scrapped altogether.

Fauzia gave many years of dedicated service to the party and now feels cheated that some others who, in her opinion, have done less for the PTI were able to get elected because they were unfairly given a higher slot on the party’s list of candidates for reserved seats.

The rationale for the reservation of seats for women is that without a fixed quota they might not be able to win more than a handful of seats. Whatever the original justification might have been, the system has now been so perverted that it is not really an election at all, but selection by the party heads.

The holders of reserved seats owe their position not to a choice of the voters but to the fact that they have been hand-picked by one party leader or the other. They represent no one but their benefactor and in order to stay in favour with him/her, most of them are prepared to do his/her bidding unquestioningly. It is no wonder that in our daily TV talk shows they serve as the most loyal and vocal mouthpieces of the party head.

Having gained entry through nomination rather than election by the voters, they are treated by their elected colleagues – and the general public – to be of a lower grade than the other members. Not only are they in no position to claim that they are the people’s representatives, their heavy presence in the legislatures also detracts from the representative character of the assemblies.

Holders of reserved seats, including those for minorities, presently make up a hefty one-fourth of the total strength of our assemblies. This was not always so. In the 1973 Constitution, as originally adopted, the reservation of seats for women was for a limited period and on a more limited scale. Since then, it has been made permanent and the number has multiplied six-fold.

The reason why our rulers, both military and civilian, have been so keen on reserved seats is, quite simply, that the ‘election’ to these seats is very easy to control. The most important requirement for winning them is selection by the party head and a high placement in the list of preferences. There is no actual vote. Through a judicious distribution of party tickets for reserved seats, the party head is thus able to create a sizeable block of loyal supporters in the legislatures. Besides, he acquires an enhanced power of patronage which enables him to expand his control over the party.

The reservation of seats for women goes back to the Government of India Act of 1935 and was continued under the constitutions of 1956 and 1962. The 1973 Constitution originally provided for 10 such seats but only for two general elections. In 1985, Zia increased this period to three elections. In 1989 the Benazir government extended it to four elections. Finally, Musharraf’s Legal Framework Order made reserved seats permanent and the 18th Amendment ratified his decision.

The story of the exponential increase in the number of reserved women’s seats is somewhat similar. In 1985, Zia raised the number from 10 to 20. In 2002, Musharraf increased their number threefold to 60 – or about 22 percent of the general seats. This change was then sanctified by the 18th Amendment.

Besides increasing the number of reserved seats for women, our military dictators also introduced changes in the manner in which these seats are filled. Under the original 1973 Constitution, members on these seats were elected by those elected on general seats. Now, they are practically selected by the party heads.

The constitutional amendment made by Musharraf – and later ratified by the 18th Amendment – speaks convolutedly of “election through proportional representation system of political parties’ list of candidates on the basis of total number of general seats secured by each political party”. But in reality this ‘election’ is pure fiction.

Each party gets a share of the reserved seats in proportion to the number of general seats won by it. Who actually wins those seats is determined by the party heads, who draw up the preference lists. Not only is there no voting on the party lists, it is not even necessary to publish these lists before the general election. In the recent (May) elections, the Election Commission notified the names of nine winners of reserved seats weeks after the general elections simply upon their nomination by the PML-N head.

Not only is the method of election to reserved seats undemocratic and lacking in transparency, it has also been massively abused to get wives, daughters, sisters, widows and other relatives of the leading politicians a place in parliament. Also, almost all of the holders of reserved seats belong to the country’s privileged ruling class.

Most of them have no idea of the aspirations and needs of the ordinary women of the country. This came out starkly in a random survey carried out last week by one private TV channel in which several of the newly selected women parliamentarians were asked to give the price of one kilogramme of wheat flour – the staple of the ordinary Pakistani’s diet. Hardly anyone among these distinguished ladies was able to give a correct answer. Most of them have little experience of public life and would be more at home discussing the latest in women’s fashions or the rising costs of employing domestic servants.

The women’s quota has also been abused in another way. It has been heavily usurped by the large cities at the expense of the remoter areas. Nearly half the women’s reserved seats in the National Assembly – 29 out of a total of 60 – have gone to the urban metropolises of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar, while the smaller cities and the rural areas have been short-changed. Women from Lahore alone bagged nine seats in the National Assembly. In the Punjab Assembly, Lahore did even better, winning 29 out of 66 seats reserved for women.

Increasing women’s participation in public life and giving them equal opportunities to enter and do well in politics is no doubt very desirable but the system of reserved seats adopted in Pakistan is not the way to achieve this objective. In the name of gender equality, we have only strengthened the monopoly of our ruling class on political power. If we are to have any reserved seats at all, we should have them not for women but for workers, peasants and other underprivileged classes who make up the vast bulk of the population but get no representation in our parliament.

It must be said that the Indian political system, corrupt and rickety as it is, has shown a greater degree of maturity than us on this issue. Three years ago, the upper house of the Indian parliament passed a constitution amendment bill introduced by the Manmohan government providing for the reservation of one-third of the seats in the lower house and state legislative assemblies for women.

These seats were to be filled not through a sham ‘election’ of candidates handpicked by the party heads, as under our constitution, but by the voters directly. Although the bill has the support of the ruling Congress Party as well as the BJP in opposition, it has still not been passed by the lower house because of objections by disenfranchised minorities such as Muslims and ‘lower’ castes who fear that it would mainly benefit the privileged ‘high-caste’ women.

If our political parties are really serious about giving women greater representation in our legislatures, they should do it through a fairer distribution of party tickets between the genders at election time. The present system of reserved seats is patently undemocratic and should be scrapped.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
"Nay! man is evidence against himself. Though he puts forth his excuses." Holy Qur'an (75:14-15)
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