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Mid-term paradox

If elections are held again under the same rules and regulations, how can one expect these to be fairer and freer than the previous?

Mid-term paradox

The appointment of Fakhruddin G Ibrahim as Chief Election Commissioner in July 2012, was welcomed and applauded by all the political parties. PTI issued a press statement calling him a man of unquestionable integrity. He is among the rare few persons in our polity who enjoy undisputable repute. His appointment was made according to the new procedure prescribed by 18th Amendment, which ensured it is done through consensus among all stakeholders.

The Election Commission administered general elections 2013 from a morally exalted position working under a non-controversial leadership. The hope and the expectations were high that the country will finally have truly free, fair, and non-controversial elections.

The 2013 elections, tenth since 1970, though achieved the coveted milestone of affecting the first ever democratic transition; they failed to break free from the dubious tradition under which results of every election have remained controversial till the next ones are called.

One can argue that the present duststorm kicked up by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is less about electoral fraud and more about winning and/or retaining political constituencies or worse that it is a conspiracy hatched by some invisible political actors. But one cannot deny that the quality of administration of 2013 elections left a lot to be desired. If these were not worse than any of the past nine elections, these were not any better either.

Fakhruddin might have personally come out clean from the mess but his impeccable reputation failed to raise the stature of general elections. He was the right medicine administered to the patient on the basis of a wrong diagnosis. The electoral system does not suffer from ‘an image problem’ that could be overcome by hiring credible persons as brand ambassadors. Its malaises are real.

The electoral machinery suffers from a host of systemic problems. It needs a complete overhaul, plugging of the leakages and replacement or fixing of the faulty parts. Painting the same machine in a new and shiny color and expecting it to perform better is naïve. It didn’t work in 2013 and it can’t work any time in future, and certainly not in a hurriedly called mid-term elections.

This makes the PTI’s belated street activism against election results quite paradoxical. The party alleges that the past elections were massively rigged thus, the resultant government is illegitimate and it shall resign to allow fresh elections.

But if elections are held again under the same rules and regulations, how can one expect these to be fairer and freer than the previous? The 2013 experience amply demonstrates that cosmetic changes can’t make our electoral system credible. We need to dig deeper and affect substantial reforms and if the constitution is to prevail the system can only be improved and changed by an elected government.

Take, for example, the main bone of contention in the 2013 elections: the appointment of district level judicial officers as Returning Officers. They are accused by the PTI of bending rules and tempering results in favour of PML-N. The officers from the same cadre have performed these duties in seven general elections since 1988 and, ironically, none is considered untainted.

The task was performed in three earlier elections (1970, 1977 and 1985) by the officers from district management group. The 1977 elections were followed by a countrywide protest campaign against the alleged rigging done by the civil bureaucracy on the behest of the then ruling party PPP of ZA Bhutto.

If mid-term elections are called now, who will perform the duties of ROs? Both the judicial officers and the district administration officers have been equally controversial in their role as election managers and the losing parties can again accuse any of them of bias and fraud. No elections, mid-term or full-term, can be undisputed unless an amicable solution is found to this important problem.

Further, the constitution requires replacement of elected governments with caretakers to ensure neutrality in elections. The ruling and the opposition parties have to choose caretakers through consensus. The leader of the opposition in the present National Assembly is from PPP. PTI occupies the slot in Punjab, while in Sindh it is with PML-F, and in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with JUI-F.

PTI can influence the selection of caretakers in Punjab alone. Here, too, if the PML-N and the PTI refuse to second each other’s choices, the decision then will have to be taken by the Election Commission. But if PTI members resign from assemblies to pressurise the government to hold fresh elections, it will have no say in the appointment of caretakers that will oversee elections. Can we expect the PTI to accept the results of mid-term elections held under caretakers that have not been approved by it?

More important than this game of predicting what might happen under certain possible conditions, however, are the present day political realities. It is evident that the PTI’s protest campaign has failed to achieve the target of forcing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign and, thus, paving way for fresh elections.

The party, however, has succeeded in galvanising popular opposition to the ruling parties and creating the perception that the 2013 elections were massively rigged. It doesn’t seem likely that the PTI will be able to get it translated into its main wish in near future. But the party can transform its movement into one aimed at bringing substantial changes in the country’s electoral system.

Luckily, the road for such a move is already paved as a parliamentary committee to study and recommend electoral reforms is in place. The committee can not only help remove glitches in electoral machinery, it can also take up issues like duration of the term of an elected government. PTI can expect support from various other parties on matters like this who have otherwise supported PML-N in their bid to save parliamentary system.

If PTI could bargain the political capital it has supposedly accumulated during the past few months with systemic changes, ensuring freer and fairer future elections and convert its mid-term paradox into a long term gain, it can truly emerge as a party of change.

Tahir Mehdi

Tahir Mehdi
The author works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

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