Jun 13, 2011

Two steps to take

Asif Ezdi
On June 1, the parliamentary committee set up under the 18th Amendment to select members of the Election Commission approved four names, one from each province, to serve on this body. Three of these names are understood to have been proposed by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and the fourth by the opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali. A formal notification on their appointment was issued last week.

It is typical of the incredibly shoddy work done by Raza Rabbani and the Constitutional Reform Committee which drafted the amendment, and of the august houses of parliament that passed it, that the term of office of the members of the Election Commission has not been specified. They could therefore serve for life, though the assumption is that the period would be five years, like that of future chief election commissioners appointed after the incumbent, Hamid Ali Mirza completes his three years in March next year. He had been handpicked by Zardari before the president’s discretionary powers to make the appointment were taken away.

The failure to specify the term of office of the members of the commission is just one of many instances of the incompetence of the Constitutional Reform Committee. There are numerous other examples of such bloopers, but this one suffices to show how little the members of the Constitutional Reform Committee merited the award of Nishan-e-Imtiaz conferred upon them by Zardari. If any honour had to be bestowed on them, it should have been some Tamgha-e-Na-Ahli in view of the incompetence they displayed.

Both Zardari and the recipients of the award also chose to ignore the explicit ban imposed by Article 259 of the Constitution on the conferment of awards on Pakistan’s citizens except for gallantry and achievements in sports and academics. It is to be hoped that our judiciary will suo motu take notice of this wilful violation of the Constitution.

It is another sign of the scant respect that Zardari and company have shown for the Constitution that it took the government a year to appoint the members of the parliamentary committee. Even after the committee had been constituted, it designated the members of the Election Commission only after an indication was given by the Supreme Court that those responsible for the delay could be guilty of treason under Article 6 of the Constitution and that bye-elections in 26 federal and provincial constituencies held after the passage of the 18th Amendment could be annulled.

The main responsibility of the chief election commissioner and the Election Commission, as laid down by the Constitution, is to conduct elections to the office of president and to the two houses of the federal parliament and the provincial assemblies “honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law.” But the past performance of the commission has hardly been such as to inspire confidence. Above all, it has failed to prevent, and sometimes even connived at, electoral rigging. The commission is therefore widely perceived as the extended arm of the bureaucracy and as being all too willing to do the government’s bidding.

A particularly shocking example of the commission’s partiality to the government was the way it conducted the presidential election in October 2007, which Musharraf duly “won.” Only three weeks before polling day, Qazi Farooq, then chief election commissioner, changed the Presidential Election Rules to disallow any challenge to Musharraf’s nomination papers on the grounds that, as a person in the “service of Pakistan,” he was disqualified under Article 63 from being a candidate. This amendment to the rules was opposed at the time by the PPP and the major political parties. But even after the ouster of Musharraf three years ago, it has not been withdrawn.

A less known example of Qazi Farooq’s deference to the rulers of the time was his failure to amend the Presidential Election Rules to bring them in line with the amendments made by Musharraf in 2002 to laws on election to the National and Provincial Assemblies and the Senate. Under these amendments, all candidates are now required to submit a statement on their assets and the taxes paid by them. In addition, all serving members of the legislatures have to declare their assets annually. The same obligation should logically have been placed on presidential candidates and the president as well. The CEC should simply have amended the Presidential Election Rules to require a declaration of assets and taxes from presidential candidates. But neither Qazi Farooq, nor his successor Hamid Mirza, the incumbent, has done so. As a result, the president is the only holder of elected office who does not have to disclose his assets or the taxes he has paid (or not paid).

Needless to say, this suits Zardari perfectly. He not only enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution for alleged corruption but also does not have to divulge how much wealth he has acquired and added from year to year, and will not have to declare his assets when he seeks another presidential term in 2013.

Like Farooq, Mirza has also not been able to win the trust of the opposition, or of the public generally, for several reasons. In particular, his reputation has not been enhanced by his unwillingness or inability to pursue the cases of fake-degree holders, despite the orders of the Supreme Court directing the Election Commission to proceed against them. Mirza has also shown little inclination to take action against lawmakers suspected of making false declarations of assets, of holding dual citizenship, or of involvement in corrupt electoral practices. In each case, the offenders are powerful persons or close to those holding the highest political offices in the country.

The reconstituted commission now has an opportunity of undoing these wrongs. Whether it will do so remains highly doubtful, especially as long as Mirza remains the CEC. But it is not simply one man’s doing. The problem is much bigger and more deep-rooted. Our ruling elite has completely perverted the country’s electoral system and acquired a virtual stranglehold over it, further consolidating their grip on political power. They now have a strong vested interest in keeping things as they are.

The results are reflected in the composition and performance of the legislatures which are packed with looters of public money, tax cheats, loan defaulters, fake-degree holders and an assortment of other shady characters. The same discredited lot and their progeny and hangers-on get elected again and again. Once they are elected, their first priority is to expand their wealth, power and privileges and that of their class. The 18th Amendment strengthened dynastic hold further by scrapping the constitutional requirement of intra-party elections and transferring the powers under the “defection clause” from the elected leader of the parliamentary party to the party head.

An electoral system that produces such “public representatives” as we have in our country is not just broken; it is rotten. Simple tinkering, such as the five-year “strategic plan” announced by the Election Commission last year, will just not be enough. The solution lies in taking steps that break the monopoly of the country’s political dynasties. This is not as difficult as might seem at first sight.

Two steps would go a long way. First, we need legislation that introduces meaningful elections in the political parties, not the kind of cosmetic measure which Musharraf adopted in 2002 with the aim of neutralising Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Second, we should replace the present first-past-the-post system for elections to the National and Provincial Assemblies with proportional representation. It will reduce the influence of rich locally influential politicians and strengthen programme-based political parties, besides producing legislatures in which the party strength more accurately reflects the support they enjoy in the electorate. Needless to say, the initiative to take these measures cannot be expected to come from our present rulers. It has to come from outside parliament.

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