By Mudassir Rizvi
The year 2015 was the year of elections — starting from the cantonment boards to the last phase of the local government polls in December. Despite inadequate administrative decentralisation to the districts, local governments have been set up or are in the process of being installed. The spell is broken.
While political parties have taken a step towards deepening democracy in the country, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) needs to be acknowledged for making this gigantic task possible even as it faced a plethora of problems. Despite the weak and patchy regulatory mechanisms made available to it by the provinces, and much legal wrangling, the ECP managed these elections under court deadlines which appeared unrealistic. However, stocktaking is important as the country prepares for the next general elections in 2018.
The LG elections provide clear lessons for parliament. The foremost is that legislation done in haste is always problematic. In this case, the 18th Amendment Act empowered the ECP to hold LG elections by inserting Article 140(2) in the Constitution. However, the necessary amendments that should have been there for subsequent articles were not made. As a result, the ECP, which is a federal constitutional institution, had to work under the laws provided by the provincial assemblies and rules framed by the provincial LG departments in contravention of Article 222, which clearly makes the ECP subservient to the laws provided by parliament.
The ECP’s failure lay in letting the executive off the hook even when it clearly defied the rules of the game.
Similarly, the 18th Amendment, which included more than 100 amendments to the Constitution and was passed by the National Assembly after only 15 hours of debate in 2010, did not provide for the ECP to prepare electoral rolls for local elections, delimit constituencies, frame rules, etc. It was only after the intervention of the superior court that the ECP was tasked with delimiting local-level constituencies in line with its constitutional mandate. Constituencies delimited by the provinces were redone, wasting public time and resources. This delayed the conduct of elections after the initiation of the electoral process both in Punjab and Sindh, although the rescheduling of elections in Islamabad was the ECP’s own mistake. These issues, among others, may now be taken up by the elusive parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, which has been at work for more than a year now, although it was given three months to complete the task.
There are also lessons for the political parties in these elections. The most important lesson for them is to organise themselves and reconnect with the people. The absence or a weak political organisation at the local level created problems for the political parties in even nominating their candidates. The ruling party, which more or less swept Punjab in the 2013 general elections, could not field candidates for all seats in the province, not because it did not have candidates but because it feared annoying disparate groups and individuals that swear allegiance to it at least for now amid a weak local-level organisational structure. The better option was to let them fight it out among themselves; the winners could always join the party. The same happened in Sindh.
This does not augur well for democracy which depends on a vibrant political party system. The fact that independent candidates clearly came in second in Punjab and Sindh only reinforces the need for a political organisation with deep and strong connections with the public at the grass-roots level. Although political parties have varying explanations for the phenomenon of independents, they cannot deny the fact that the latter polled some 5.81 million of the votes in 2013, making them the fourth largest vote-getters only after the PML-N (14.8m), PTI (7.73m) and PPP (6.97m). The party that trailed behind the independents was the MQM with almost 2.5m votes. The rise of independents is an expression of a weak political organisation and that a substantial number of people still vote on the basis of traditional loyalties and linkages, an anti-thesis for democratic consolidation.
While the need for the ECP to completely insulate itself from the judiciary and the executive does not need to be emphasised, the one lesson for ECP is absolutely crucial — accountability of officials for not complying with its instructions. After having taken flak from the political parties and the public for its conduct of the 2013 elections, the ECP was again in the line of fire for alleged irregularities and illegalities during various phases of the LG polls. The ECP is the constitutional custodian of the sanctity of the electoral process. It does not implement the electoral process itself but through the assistance of the executive as provided for in the Constitution. The executive’s failure to comply with electoral laws and rules is not the failure of the ECP. Its failure is to let the executive off the hook even when it clearly defied the rules of the game.
Accountability of officials on poll duty or interference in the electoral process by those who are not on election duty is necessary for the improved quality of future elections and greater public trust in the exercise. There were several instances of illegalities during the 2013 election, which were proven during the proceedings by a judicial commission. However, the ECP did not take action against the erring officials. The latter got off scot-free after testifying in the highest court that they erred. Such complacent attitudes inculcate a partisan image of the ECP, contrary to the one it should invest in developing.
The ECP has inherent constitutional powers. Unless it uses them, it cannot deliver an election that is honest, fair, just and in line with the law. Although reforms for free, fair and transparent elections are much needed, the existing laws provide the ECP with adequate powers to hold officials accountable for all acts of omission and commission, provisions that are seldom used. This creates a sense of impunity among officials on election duty in particular and the executive in general. Fear of being held accountable needs to replace the sense of impunity for the effective enforcement of electoral laws.
Dawn, January 9, 2016