Sunday, September 24th, 2017
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The parliamentary committee on electoral reforms set up in 2014 under the chair of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar has after three years of mulling over the matter, finally tabled a Bill for the purpose. Provided it passes muster in parliament, the Bill attempts to address the anomalies and long standing complaints about our electoral system. Most elections in our history have been accompanied by greater or lesser accusations of cheating, rigging and bad management. The last 2013 election too had its share of such complaints. In fact that election has been dubbed the 'Returning Officers election' because of the perception that these officers were either incompetent, motivated in some way or the other, and indifferent to the plethora of complaints by the stakeholders in the process. In this and past elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has often been under fire for not doing its job. Given this background and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's (PTI's) charges of hanky-panky in the 2013 elections, parliament decided to take the bull by the horns and set up the committee. The thorny nature of the issues confronting the committee, stretching back over the years, may be one explanation for the extraordinarily long deliberations it went through. The other may be the distraction of the government, including Dar, because of the political challenge thrown up by the PTI. Nevertheless, now that the belated Bill is on the floor, its provisions need assessment. The thrust of these provisions is to enhance the autonomy and increase the independent functioning of the ECP. Thus, for example, the Bill proposes initiatives by the ECP regarding the preparation of voters' lists (the yet to be announced results of the census may not be available in time for the exercise this time round), delimitation, simplification of nomination papers, installation of surveillance cameras, penalties for violations, women voters' turnout, the powers of polling day officials, expediting the resolution of election disputes, implementation of a Code of Conduct and a transparent Results Management System to ensure expeditious counting, compiling and dissemination of election results. The ECP is charged with preparing an action plan to implement these proposals at least six months before the elections, a tight schedule if ever there was one. The Bill empowers the ECP with full administrative powers to control and transfer election officials during elections and take disciplinary action against them for misconduct. The Chief Election Commissioner shall have full financial powers, including powers to create posts within approved budgetary allocations. The ECP would be empowered to make rules without the prior approval of the President or the government, such rules being subject to prior publication, seeking suggestions within 15 days. The ECP would be authorised to redress complaints and grievances during various stages of the election process, other than challenges to the election itself under Article 225. ECP decisions in such matters would be appealable before the Supreme Court. A potentially ticklish provision is the scrutiny by the ECP of the wealth statements of parliamentarians, with false declarations inviting unseating. This provision should now be read with reference to the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif.

A transparent, efficient, credible electoral system is the starting point of the democratic project. It is critical to overcoming the legacy of controversies after every election, which sometimes have led to big political crises. Such a system puts elections centre-stage as the preferred mode of change of governments. It is a sine qua non for according legitimacy to elected governments, something we should aspire to if the history of election quarrels is to be put to rest. An autonomous, empowered ECP is essential for this goal. However, any system is only as good as the people who man it. The appointment therefore of the Chief Election Commissioner and other members of the ECP must enjoy consensus across the political divide, particularly since they would now be empowered to run elections independently.



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