About seven months ago, Pakistan’s divided parliament miraculously agreed on one man to lead the country towards free and fair elections: Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim. The Parliament couldn’t have chosen a more suitable and trustworthy candidate for the job.
The 85-year-old Gujarat-born Ebrahim is a seasoned jurist and constitutional expert.
He has served not only as ad hoc judge of the Supreme Court, but also as the Governor of Sindh from 1989 to August 6, 1990, and as interim Law Minister in 1993 for President Farooq Leghari’s caretaker cabinet.
The very fact that the People’s Party-led government and the main opposition Nawaz-League, which are constantly at loggerheads with each other, could be in agreement on Ebrahim’s name speaks volumes about his honest reputation.
This was evident in his refusal to take oath from General Zia-ul-Haq in 1981 under the military dictator’s Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), which negated the independence of the judiciary and provided legal cover to prolonged martial law.
Still, despite his formidable experience and impeccable reputation, his current job will be his hardest yet: to conduct transparent polls in a country with a tainted electoral history.
Ebrahim takes the key office of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) at a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history. Three factors make it so: this is the first time in Pakistani history that a civilian government will complete a full term in office. And there are the two major regional factors – improving trade relations with traditional rival India and the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan – which make it crucial for elections to pave the way for prolonged political stability.
Recent developments show the election commission has already covered significant ground. A January 2013 report published by an independent election watchdog, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), says the commission has achieved 76% of its strategic plan, which includes key goals such as voter education, the preparation and verification of electoral rolls, laying down of the legal framework and restructuring the commission for more effective election operations.
This week, Pakistan’s central bank, the federal tax regulator, the national anti-graft watchdog and the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) assured the election commission of their assistance and the use of their systems to filter out corrupt individuals from the list of candidates eligible to contest polls. With a stable mechanism of cross-checking their declarations of assets and liabilities, a thorough verification of the financial integrity of candidates appears to be in the offing for the first time in the country’s history.
The commission also announced last week that it had completed the verification of voters in Karachi – a mammoth task carried out for the second time at the insistence of the courts after several petitioners complained of foul play. Objections ranged from unverified electoral rolls to the registrations of hundreds of voters at individual residential addresses.
But, as the end-of-term for assemblies also draws closer, even larger tasks await the CEC.
Before end-March when the national and provincial assemblies are dissolved, Ebrahim must ensure his officers have the requisite authority to effectively undertake a proper scrutiny of nomination papers and conduct transparent election operations. The commission has forwarded the Parliament a draft of constitutional amendments for sweeping electoral reforms – reforms that may entitle the commission to powers described by many as similar to those enjoyed by India’s chief election commission. These include such key proposals as making the violation of the election code of conduct a punishable offence, without which the commission stands powerless in the face of offenders.
The question is: With barely weeks left for the expiry of the assembly terms, and several political parties visibly disturbed by the idea of an all-powerful election commission, will parliament be able to pass these important amendments into law?
There are several other complications like the web of legal battles that the commission is entangled with. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition on the verification of voters’ lists in Karachi, and only last week did the CEC to breathe a sigh of relief when the court dismissed another petition seeking the reconstitution of the election commission citing procedural flaws in the appointment of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s members. But other petitions may be filed in the days to come, putting further pressure on the commission.
There’s also the directions delivered by the apex court which could have far-reaching impact, some with policy decisions best left for elected bodies to debate and decide upon. PILDAT, in its report, concludes it to be inappropriate “to introduce systemic changes just on the directions of the court.” These issues must be resolved before the elections else a plethora of writs could follow, challenging the election commission’s results on the grounds that the court’s directions were ignored.
The law and order situation poses a major challenge during elections. In mid-February, another massive explosion jolted Quetta killing 87 people – the second such bombing this year in the provincial capital of Balochistan. Sectarian violence and targeted killings also plague Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan. And a constitutional crisis appears to be brewing in Balochistan where Governor’s rule over the deteriorating law and order situation, stands in the way of the dissolution of assemblies and the selection of a caretaker provincial government.
The road to free and fair elections in Pakistan is filled with hurdles for even as robust a public figure as Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim. Surely the task for the octogenarian is a Herculean one.
Sajjad Haider is a journalist at Dawn.com.
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