Just days before the end of its term, the Zardari government locked horns with the Election Commission of Pakistan over amendments to nomination forms. The PML-N too has been expressing reservations. The amendments are aimed at ensuring that in compliance with candidates’ qualifications/disqualification standards, tax evaders, loan defaulters and dual nationals (infesting the outgoing assemblies) stay out of the electoral process.
In case the government had genuine objections, it had ample time to hold discussions with the ECP and see if these could be sorted out. Notably, the ECP sent its electoral reform proposal on February 20 to the law ministry for the President’s signature. Everyone knew time was short, and that the ECP could not afford to wait forever. The PPP government’s term was nearing end, and caretakers about to take charge to oversee elections around mid-May. The ECP needed to finalise the nomination forms for printing so they would be ready in time for candidates to file their nominations, allowing for a month-long scrutiny period. Only the government can tell why it did not act quickly to consult with the parliamentary opposition, and go back to the election authority with suggested changes. It wasted whole three weeks to act, sitting on the proposal until March 7 when the Law Minister met with the ECP officials and raised a number of objections, that too in an informal verbal exchange which indicated lack of seriousness. He was told to submit his objections in writing immediately so they could be given due consideration. He sent in a written response the next day. The ECP remained unconvinced, asking the minister to forward its own reform proposal to the President for signing – latest by March 11. Again, nothing happened. Pressed for time, the ECP went ahead to order the printing of new forms.
That is when the government suddenly got proactive insisting that the President had the final authority to validate electoral reform. In its defence, the ECP quoted Article 218 (3) of the Constitution to argue that it could take any steps to hold free, fair and transparent elections, and guard against corrupt practices. The ensuing controversy has given rise to a suspicion that the delay all along was intentional, aimed at either forcing the ECP to back down and use the old forms or at least to make the ECP itself controversial so as to put a question mark on its electoral reform initiative. The government and the opposition leaders can argue till the cows come home about the validity of the ECP’s decision to go ahead with its plan without the presidential assent but that won’t change things on ground.
It is obvious to anyone conversant with the 20th Amendment, which conferred independent status on the ECP, that it can formulate any reforms that it deems necessary to hold elections in conformity with the relevant constitutional provisions, including the ones pertaining to qualifications/disqualifications of candidates. In any event, there is not much the government can do about it now. The apex court has intervened on the side of ECP to settle the matter for all practical purposes. A three-member Supreme Court bench while hearing, on Tuesday, identical petitions filed by the Workers Party Pakistan and some others referred to Article 218(3) of the Constitution to say the provision empowered ECP to issue orders that, in its opinion, are necessary to ensure fair and honest elections. And furthermore, that all judgements of the apex court relating to interpretation of the said Article recognise that the ECP enjoys broad powers not only to take pre-emptive action but also to pass, any and all, orders necessary to ensure that the standards of honesty, justness, and fairness are adhered to. To further drive the point home, the court added that Article 218(3) also empowers the ECP to ensure that the election process does not suffer from any corrupt and/or illegal practices.
It is not known what exactly the government’s objections are. Interestingly, in their public statements both the ruling and the opposition parties – barring the PTI and the MQM – have been questioning the ECP’s mandate rather than pointing out any disagreeable queries contained in nomination forms.
It is difficult to find fault with most queries, especially those pertaining to substantive issues, such as the ones that require the candidates to declare assets and file details of income tax returns (including agricultural income) foreign trips, details of expenditure of children studying abroad and, of course, a declaration of not having or applied for foreign citizenship. Some of the questions, however, have no place in the nomination form. Two that stand out for their irrelevance ask for candidates’ educational qualifications and details of development work undertaken in their respective constituencies. The graduation condition introduced by General Musharraf’s military government to keep certain people out of assemblies does not apply anymore. As regards service to constituency, it is something for the electorate to decide. These ill-conceived questions seem to have emanated from a bureaucratic mindset that loves lending complexity to simple things. The same tendency kept the ECP quarrelling with outgoing assemblies legislators who had submitted their graduation degrees but were pestered endlessly to present documentary proof of having passed matriculation, intermediate (or equivalent) exams. All the ECP needs to know in the present situation are details of assets and whether or not the candidates had paid their taxes and filed tax returns. The forms should have been simpler and practical.
The government and the opposition’s reservations, apparently, are not related to frivolous queries, but more serious issues of financial impropriety, which can affect many among all major parties. The newly empowered ECP is in no mood to make compromises on substantive matters. It is good to see it assert its authority. However, media interviews by ECP officials vowing not to allow tax evaders, loan defaulters and corrupt elements from contesting the elections are uncalled for. The Commission secretary could simply announce the plan at a news conference. As expected of the superior judiciary, ECP officials should speak through actions rather than words.
firstname.lastname@example.orgSadia Fazal, "Viewpoint: Nomination Forms," Business recorder. 2013-03-14.