The EC’s heavy responsibility - Asif Ezdi - Monday, March 14, 2011

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The secretary of the Election Commission told the press last week that out of the 81 million registered voters in the parliamentary elections of 2008, only 44 million could be confirmed as genuine. This finding had been made in a scrutiny of the electoral rolls carried out by NADRA. The remaining 37 million entries, or fully 45 per cent of the total, could not be verified and were either completely bogus or the result of multiple registration. This revelation, which raises fresh doubts about the credibility of the 2008 elections, received little coverage in our media and hardly elicited comment from our political parties. The reason is worrying: election rigging has become so deeply rooted in our political culture that it hardly causes any outrage.

The Election Commission is now working on a plan to prepare accurate computerised electoral rolls from the NADRA records and a house-to-house survey to be carried out in June and July this year. According to the commission, the new system would eliminate the possibility of false entries. In addition, the government has proposed legislation, the Election Laws Amendment Bill 2011, that will make it mandatory for a voter to produce his national identity card before he casts his vote.

These two measures should help reduce bogus registration and bogus voting. That is to be welcomed, but it will not suffice. There is a lot that needs to be fixed in our electoral system, and a whole raft of administrative, legal and constitutional measures will be required before we can claim that our elected legislatures at the national and provincial level reflect the will of the people.

The Election Commission should start by enforcing vigorously all existing laws which impose penalties on those who pervert the electoral process. Because these people belong to the class of the rich and powerful, the commission has a very poor record in this respect. It is an offence to give any form of “gratification” to a voter to win his vote. But the commission has been unwilling to prosecute the culprits. In the 2008 elections, a reputed foreign newspaper quoted a prominent candidate from a rural constituency, a former minister, with these words: “I pay (the voters) to vote for me. Then I pay someone else to check they actually did vote, and then I pay more people to check they weren’t paid to vote for someone else too.” It is known that many candidates from our ruling classes do the same, but no steps are taken to enforce the law.

It is also well-known that restrictions on election expenses laid down in the law are openly violated by most candidates. Many of them are sitting in our assemblies. They are estimated to number more than half of the entire membership. Yet, hardly anyone has been prosecuted. Similarly, the number of our legislators who won membership of the august chambers on the strength of fake degrees could well be more than a hundred.

Another example of a legal provision which has been more honoured in its breach than its observance is one that stipulates that a person who acquires the citizenship of another country is disqualified from election to parliament. This provision has existed in the Constitution since it was adopted in 1973. Since then, the Citizenship Act has been amended to allow dual nationality with some countries. But an ordinary law cannot affect the mandatory constitutional requirement that acquisition of foreign nationality entails disqualification from election. Despite this, several persons believed to be holding foreign nationality have seats in parliament.

The Election Commission has clearly failed to fulfil its constitutional obligation to ensure that elections are conducted “honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law, and that corrupt practices are guarded against.” Because of this failure, the legitimacy of our assemblies is open to serious question.

The 18th Amendment now seeks to strengthen the independence of the commission by instituting a new system for the appointment of the chief election commissioner and the members of the commission. They are to be selected in future by a 12-member parliamentary committee from a panel of three names proposed by the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition or, failing agreement between them, by each one of them separately. But nearly a year after the 18th Amendment was passed, vacancies in the commission have not been filled. The PML-N has also demanded that the current chief election commissioner, whose term expires in March 2012, should be immediately replaced.

The failure to reconstitute the Election Commission in accordance with the 18th Amendment is already affecting its functioning. In particular, action against holders of fake degrees who are sitting in parliament, has been practically suspended. Zardari’s hand is clearly visible behind these machinations. It is clear that he will only allow the vacancies in the Election Commission to be filled once he is assured of a majority in the parliamentary committee through deals with the smaller opposition parties.

Doubts about the chances of holding the next parliamentary elections, due by May 2013, in a free and fair manner will be reinforced by the fact that a caretaker cabinet appointed by Zardari will be in office at the time. The rationale of having a caretaker prime minister is that the government that oversees an election should be headed by a person without any political affiliation who can be counted upon to ensure a level playing field for all parties. But in practice, this expectation has not been fulfilled. From Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi through Moeen Qursehi and Meraj Khalid to Muhammadmian Soomro, they were all seen as pawns appointed to ensure preordained election results. A caretaker prime minister appointed by Zardari would be no different. In Bangladesh, the Constitution expressly lays down that a caretaker government would be “non-party.” There is no such requirement in our Constitution. So there is nothing to stop Zardari from appointing a man like Babar Awan as caretaker prime minister. Although the president is now required to consult the outgoing prime minister and the leader of the opposition before making the appointment, their advice is not binding upon him.

Under an amendment to the Constitution made by Musharraf in 2002, a general election is to be held not in the sixty days preceding the end of the five-year parliamentary term but in the following sixty days. This means that during the time between the end of the tenure of the outgoing parliament and the beginning of the term of the newly elected parliament – the three-month during which election is held – the president, acting through a caretaker prime minister, has complete and unfettered legislative powers. It is mind-boggling how a man like Zardari could abuse that power to influence the outcome of the election.

All this does not augur well for the fairness and transparency of the next parliamentary elections. These elections will be the first since those of March 1977 – and only the second in our history – to take place under a purely civilian setup. The Election Commission will bear a heavy responsibility. Not only our electoral system but the entire political system will be put to a severe test. The continuity of the political process will be at stake. We only need recall what the 1977 election led to.

Zardari’s foremost objective is to win five more years as president after his present term expires in September 2013, so that he retains the immunity from criminal process without which he would be in the dock on corruption charges. He will therefore stop at nothing to obtain “positive results” in the parliamentary elections, to borrow Ziaul Haq’s immortal words. Clearly, Pakistan is about to enter what promises to be an even stormier period of its turbulent political history.

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service. Email: asifezdi

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