Delimitation of Constituencies: A Vital Component of Elections

Delemination of constituencies is a vital component defining how representative and, to a certain extent, how fair elections will be. In recognition of the importance of delimitation, country signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR) codified this principle in article 25(b), which provides for the principle of equality of votes. Also, paragraph 21 of General Comment 25 (which is the authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR) states that the vote of one elector should be equal to the vote of another; the drawing of electoral boundaries and the method of allocating votes should not distort the distribution of voters or discriminate against any group and should not exclude or restrict unreasonably the right of citizens to choose their representatives freely. Pakistan ratified the ICCPR in 2010.

Delimitation practices are also codified in the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters adopted by the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission), adopted in October 2002. The Code suggest that delimitation should be done impartially; without detriment to national minorities; taking account of the opinion of a committee, the majority of whose members are independent and should preferably include a geographer, a sociologist and a balanced representation of the parties and, if necessary, representatives of national minorities. Other key guidelines given in the code are equal voting power through the even distribution of seats among constituencies, which should be applicable at least to elections to lower houses of parliament and regional and local councils. The code also proposes criteria for the allocation of seats to constituencies. These can be population or number of registered voters, but with a variation of not more than 10 percent. The distribution of seats must be reviewed at least every 10 years, preferably outside election periods.

Pakistan has a separate law "the Delimitation of Constituencies Act, 1974" governing delimitation of constituencies for national and provincial assemblies. However, provincial legislation on delimitation of electoral units for local government elections is part of the Local Government (LG) laws, together with other aspects of the electoral processes.

In addition to regulating delimitation with a different legal framework, provinces deal with delimitation in very different manners than the federal authorities. Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh provide a mandate for delimitation of electoral units/wards and Union Councils to the provincial government rather than the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on the other hand, established a semiindependent Delimitation Authority, albeit the Act leaves its composition and scope of work undefined.

Legislation on delimitation in each province has many weaknesses-besides the lack of the independence of delimitation authorities, neither of the provincial laws require preliminary publication of the delimitation plan, so as to allow and encourage public input or challenge, and to guarantee the right to an effective and timely remedy against gerrymandering.

All the LG laws set population as a major criteria for delimitation of Union Councils or Village Councils (in the case of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and electoral wards within a local council. While Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa laws define the term population as "in accordance with the last preceding census officially published", this definition is not in the Punjab and Balochistan laws. As a reminder, Pakistan's last available census figures date back to 1998 and the electoral rolls provide for more accurate population figures.

In general, the provincial laws require geographic compactness and contiguity and more or less uniform population as key criteria for delimitation of electoral units. However, not without a caveat: the laws also give extensive powers to the provincial governments to wave these requirements and to merge, divide or alter the boundaries of a local council simply by issuing a notification. This allocation of power to the executive branch of state and arbitrary powers provide little safeguard for such a fundamental element of elections.

Balochistan was the first province where delimitation was tested through the electoral process. An Election Assessment Mission (EAM) deployed by Democracy Reporting International (DRI) reported wide ranging complaints from voters about the lack of availability of delimitation information, leaving candidates unsure of which ward to nominate themselves in (candidates are required to be on the electoral roll in the ward they are running for). Use of the old census block codes created problems for delimitation and consequently for electoral roll division, causing complications at many stages of the process (including candidate nomination, campaigning and voter access to information on contenders, and establishment of the polling scheme). Information on registered voters per constituency (as opposed to the population size) has not been made easily available. The Balochistan LG Act sets a lower (7,000 residents) and upper (15,000 residents) population limit for Union Councils allowing for vast variations in population. The variations in the sizes of Union Councils also undermine equality of votes within the District Douncils where Union Councils are represented as electoral units.

DRI reports cases such as Quetta Metropolitan Corporation, where one ward (2 M.A Jinnah) has 1,947 voters while another (58 Lore Karez) has 26,445, i.e. more than 13 times more voters. Within each of the Union Councils in Quetta there was a minimum variation of more than 261 percent (the smallest ward having 1,151 voters and the largest having 3,009 voters). In the most extreme case, Union Council 3 (Sara Ghurgai), one ward had 1,450 voters making it 145 times larger than the smallest ward which has just 10 voters in total. Sindh and Lahore delimitation issues became apparent when the Lahore and Sindh High Courts found delimitation of constituencies inadequate and declared them null and void, stalling the electoral process. The Sindh High Court suggested the formation of an independent commission to deal with objections and appeals , while the Lahore High Court assigned the mandate for delimitation to the Election Commission of Pakistan. A detailed verdict of Lahore High Court is awaited. It remains unclear how the courts' judgments will be implemented.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is currently conducting delimitation, but its legislation has systematic weaknesses similar to the other provinces.


Recommendations

  1. Establish an independent mechanism for periodic review of boundaries that provides for equality of the vote. Full information is made easily accessible to the public.
  2. Delimitation should be based on updated population information or voter registration data. Constituencies are equalised.
  3. Provide adequate safeguards against gerrymandering. Boundary delimitation of Union/Village Councils and wards may be undertaken by independent bodies. Also include an appeal mechanism to an independent body within an expedited time frame. 
  4. Include clear, objective criteria for delimitations of units/wards on the principle of equality of votes within one local council.
  5. Set a statutory maximum percentage deviation from population size uniformity, replacing executive discretion to alter, merge or divide electoral units/councils. 
  6. Define the term 'population' in order to avoid legal challenges and provide a legal basis for the use of new census blocks as the basis for boundary delimitation.
  7. Provide for preliminary publication of the delimitation plan, so as to allow and encourage public input and challenge where appropriate, and to guarantee the right to an effective and timely remedy against gerrymandering. Bar redistricting/delimitation in election years, so as to guarantee timely remedy to complaints against delimitation.