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Saving the elections

The country collectively heaved a sigh of relief when the Supreme Court (SC) suspended the Lahore High Court’s (LHC’s) judgement asking the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to rectify and restore in the nomination forms for election candidates the information left out by parliament’s Election Reforms Act 2017. Acting promptly given the potential mischief the LHC verdict could have caused to the election schedule, a two-member bench of the SC headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar was obviously and correctly guided by the exigencies of the election schedule for the polls on July 25, 2018 and its suspension order correctly found in favour of the requirements of Article 224 and the balance of convenience concept. The ECP and former Speaker of the National Assembly Ayaz Sadiq had appealed to the SC against the LHC order. These appeals were allowed and will be heard over the next few days.

The SC also, despite the fact that the matter was not due to any act of omission or commission of the ECP, said it would hold the ECP responsible if there was any delay in the elections. Having a fire lit under it in this manner, the ECP started the process of accepting nomination forms (suspended earlier immediately after the LHC verdict) from June 4-8, 2018. The remaining stages of the electoral process are intact and the polls continue to be scheduled for July 25, 2018, as already announced.

Seldom has an election had such last minute hiccups and glitches as this one. The LHC and Balochistan High Court’s (BHC’s) rejection of some delimitations of constituencies in their respective provinces, the Balochistan Assembly’s resolution asking for a delay in the elections on the spurious grounds of weather, Hajj, possible floods, etc, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) former chief minister Pervez Khattak’s demand for simultaneous elections in former FATA and KP, and last but not least, the LHC’s verdict grounded in adherence to the provisions of the controversial Articles 62 and 63 inserted in the Constitution by General Ziaul Haq, all combined to rock the boat and engender extreme uncertainty about the elections. Pakistanis familiar with their country’s history suspected the ubiquitous hand of the establishment behind these seemingly unconnected developments, whose collective impact was to throw the country into a pit of dizzying uncertainty and fear of instability and chaos if the elections were delayed or cancelled. Kudos therefore to all the political parties, state institutions and superior judiciary for upholding the law and Constitution.

Although hinted at by former Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah and other PPP leaders, the core issue around the LHC nomination forms verdict was the sovereign right of parliament to enact/change laws, including the Constitution. Some have argued that it was the ECP’s sole prerogative before the Election Reforms Act 2017 was promulgated to make rules regarding the process of elections. Was this privilege over and above the power of parliament to legislate on the matter? That interpretation seems a stretch, and feeds into the downgrading of parliament’s sovereignty that has been our bête noir since memory serves. No doubt the SC will have something to say on this when the appeals of the ECP and Ayaz Sadiq against the LHC order are heard.

Meanwhile these legal battles are not the only hitches to the smooth holding of the elections. Apart from Sindh, there is so far no consensus in Punjab, KP or Balochistan between the outgoing chief ministers and leaders of the opposition of these respective provinces on a name for caretaker chief minister. The process seems headed, via the failure of the parliamentary committees to which the matter will first be referred, to the ECP finally deciding the names from the lists forwarded to it by each side in these three provinces. Syed Khursheed Shah reflected more than a grain of truth when he said the PPP’s political maturity had produced consensus on the caretaker prime minister and chief minister Sindh, whereas the immaturity of the political parties in the other three provinces had created the mess on display, in which the PTI’s famous U-turns were elevated to absurd heights.

Articles 62 and 63 could not be repealed or amended through the 18th Amendment because of resistance by some parties to their removal/change. They are grounded on the principle that aspirants to high office or those in high office must be demonstrably sadiq and ameen(truthful and trustworthy), although these categories can prove to be subjective. The nomination forms in use in the 2013 elections, to which the LHC wanted a return, were simplified by the Election Reforms Act 2017 to exclude 19 questions regarding the aspiring candidates. These included information about defaulted loans; spouses, dependents and business interests; criminal proceedings; occupation; tax and income; foreign travel; contribution to constituency from which the aspiring candidate may have been previously elected; political donations; net assets; foreign passports and last but not least, educational qualification.

This last provision was the lingering desiderata of Musharraf’s 2002 addition of graduation as a necessary condition to stand in elections. On the one hand, this measure deprived with one fell stroke the millions of citizens who do not have a graduation degree from standing in elections. This disenfranchisement was a backward step, running against the grain of such educational qualifications gradually but incrementally falling by the wayside in mature democracies. It also deprived the workingmasses and their leaders andrepresentatives of the chance to run in elections. On the other hand, given the characterof our political class, it harvested a rich menu of aspiring candidates resorting to submitting fake degrees to keep their foot in the electoral door. Some of these fake degrees were later exposed and their owners disqualified, but the whole episode left the political class looking even shoddier than usual.

The country is breathing a sigh of relief that the threat of a postponement or cancellation of the elections has been firmly and decisively scotched by the SC. The electoral games therefore are now set to begin. However, a niggling question remains: what, if anything, apart from ballot fodder, have the working people to do with these (or any parliamentary) elections? Can they hope that the tall promises of the political parties seeking their votes will this time be translated after the campaign dust settles into a better life and future for them and their children? Not if the track record is any guide. Should the working people, and those who aspire to lead and represent them, then be indifferent to the outcome of these elections? There is little doubt that elections in our country have never strayed from the script of contention amongst the discrete factions of the ruling elite, organized into political parties, to decide which set of privileged vested interests will hold the reins of power. When allowed by the ever-presentshadow of the establishment, elections in our history have never gone beyond this unstated goal. The virtually voiceless working people, hampered by lack of resources in a contest run by big money, must nevertheless see which faction of the ruling elite is for them the lesser evil, and at the same time intervene in the relatively freer atmosphere of an election campaign to bring home their message of the real change required to improve their lives. This real change cannot be predicated on anything else but a redistribution of wealth, income and power to allow the teeming masses a long denied entry onto the stage of history.

Rashed Rehman, "Saving the elections," Business Recorder. 2018-06-05.
Keywords: Political science , Election commission , Election schedule , State institutions , Nomination forms , Political class , Vested interests , ECP , LHC , PTI , PPP