Towards a free, fair, and transparent election?

THE announcement of the local government poll schedule has once again brought into focus the issue of credibility of the institution of Election Commission and that of the man heading it. Interestingly, what had happened in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Togo and even in Ethiopia in recent years had happened in Pakistan in 1977 with a more devastating effect when the electorate came out on the streets refusing to accept the results of an election which they felt was hugely rigged.

By A. Masroor

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Published: Mon 11 Jul 2005, 10:05 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:13 PM

But every government since has repeated the same mistakes again and again. And by now the electorate at large appears to have lost all interest in the matter. Now they don‘t come out on the streets to protest, but go home in silence.

Nevertheless, whenever an election draws nearer, an academic debate ensues in the media and civil society on how best to hold an election which, should not only be fair, free and transparent but also seen to be so. And if one went through the current debate on the matter one would get the impression that while the out-of-power political parties believe that the appointment of a consensual Chief Election Commissioner would resolve more than half the problem, the parties in power point out that under the constitution the president has the powers to appoint the CEC in his discretion without the need to consult anybody.

The PPP has demanded that Election Commission be re-constituted to incorporate independent officials, preferably notables from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan while then PML (N) wants re-constitution of Election Commission to incorporate independent officials, including notables from civil society and it also wants the CEC to be appointed in consultation with the opposition and be an independent person, meeting qualifications of a supreme court judge or a retired apex court judge without the stigma of having taken oath under the PCO

Of course, the President‘s discretion does not bar him from consulting the major parties on the issue and appointing a consensus CEC. But President Musharraf perhaps does not feel all that obliged to consult on such an important matter those who have so far not accepted him as the legitimately elected constitutional president of Pakistan. But what is most intriguing is the fact that he has preferred to continue with an acting CEC rather than appoint a full fledged one, in his discretion.

Justice Abdul Hamid Dogar, the acting CEC, at best is a part timer. He divides his time between his responsibilities on the Supreme Court bench and those of the CEC. Without meaning to question his judicial capabilities and his integrity, one is constrained to point out that it is never a good policy to burden one single person with such huge and divergent responsibilities. Sitting in judgment on daily basis must be a highly taxing experience both physically and intellectually.

After that if the same person is called upon to administer elections in a country that has by now become notorious the world over for rigging almost every election it has held so far, one could only sympathise with him.

Under the constitution while the President can appoint a CEC in his discretion, he cannot remove him in his discretion before the end of his constitutional tenure of three years. For his removal there is a cumbersome and long drawn process prescribed in article 209.

But article 209 does not apply to the acting CEC. The President can remove him any time in his discretion. This is perhaps what has persuaded Musharraf to prefer an acting CEC to a permanent one for at least the local government elections. But this makes him virtually the CEC. And this also implies that he has so far failed to find a CEC who would be as subservient to his whims and desires as the former CEC, Justice Irshad Hasan Khan was. Justice Khan was the one who had conducted the dubious 2002 elections and also the controversial presidential referendum earlier.

This in turn would imply that not being very sure of the chances of victory of candidates supported by the ruling alliance in the forthcoming local government election, the President wants to ensure that if it came to the crunch he could manipulate a subservient acting CEC to cook up the results he desires. And true enough, the acting CEC seems to have become a party to pre-poll rigging in favour of the ruling alliance by not taking any notice of the fact that all the political parties are in the process of openly choosing their respective candidates for the local elections while under the law these elections are being held on non-party basis.

In Pakistan unlike in civilised societies incumbency favours the government of the day in elections. Voters tend to vote for those candidates who are seen to be supported by the party in power, especially in local government elections because they know that an opposition candidate even if he won he would not be able to help them with their day-to-day problems. And the governments in power hold these elections on non-party basis only in the name so that if at all candidates of the opposition somehow got through the pre-poll hurdles and won some significant number of seats they could be persuaded, by using the carrot and stick method, to cross over to the government side. Party based elections would, obviously, not make this process so easy and would also result in unnecessary embarrassment for the government in case such attempts failed.

So, it all boils down to the point that unless we have an independent CEC who not only is not subservient to the President but who is also obliged to the entire nation to hold fair, free and transparent elections, questions will continue to be raised and the losers would continue to refuse to accept the results making the whole exercise look like a put up job.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad

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