ISLAMABAD: In the wake of consensus reached in the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, the National Assembly on Thursday approved the 22nd amendment in the constitution.
Once approved by the Senate with two-thirds vote, the new amendment will change eligibility criteria for Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the four members that constitute the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). It will mark the second time in the last six years that parliament has made key changes in ECP at the top level.
Before the 18th amendment was adopted, serving high court judges were appointed as ECP members.
After it was passed, retired high court judges were appointed as ECP members for their respective provinces. Appointed on June 13, 2011 for a five year term, these members will retire on June 12 this year.
The amendment also altered the division of powers in ECP, giving the CEC and all four commission members the same powers. This curtailed the CEC’s unchecked powers – although he still chaired ECP meetings, all decisions were taken with majority consent.
When the 18th amendment was passed and the incumbent ECP members appointed, the judiciary was seen as the country’s sole savior. This was in the immediate aftermath of the movement for restoration of judges sacked by former president Pervez Musharraf.
Like then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was restored in March 2009, expectations from the new ECP were very high. But the 2013 elections dashed these hopes. Most parties, including both winners and losers, voiced reservations over the transparency of the polls.
Renowned jurist Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim resigned as CEC a few months after the elections. Although ECP members continued to serve, they became controversial due to backlash, particularly from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Some parties, mainly the Pakistan Peoples Party, floated the idea that professionals from other areas should also be eligible to be appointed as ECP members.
The suggestion was made on the basic contention that 90% of the ECP job is administrative and only 10% is judicial and that a commission comprised solely of judges would not work. However, it hinted at lack of confidence in the ability of retired superior court judges.
This proposal has now resulted in the 22nd amendment. Once adopted, civil servants who retired at grade 22 or a special grade above this, and technocrats will also be considered for ECP membership alongside judges.
Although the appointment procedure will remain the same, the prime minister and National Assembly opposition leader will have final say. In case they disagree, they will send their list of nominees to a parliamentary committee.
This entire exercise still shows a lack of understanding of the ground realities – the training and empowerment of ECP field staff. Practically, it is the district election commissioner (DEC) and his staff, returning officers and government officials enlisted for poll duties that conduct elections.
The DEC’s grade 18 officers appointed by ECP in all the districts, get a salary of around Rs50,000 only. The staff below them get even lesser salary.
ECP officers claim that their salaries are less than every institute in the federal government. Their pay slips corroborate their stance.
Around 90% of ECP district offices are located in rented buildings with no facilities. These field officers under the supervision of their DEC, enroll new votes, can change votes from one district to another, mark boundaries of constituencies and perform all the other election related stuff. They are the backbone of elections commission. With their current state of affairs it will be unwise to expect that these officers will be working with dedication.
A parallel is drawn with the Indian Election Commission (IEC). In India, the election commission comprises a CEC and two members – all three are retired civil servants of much higher repute. IEC earned so much respect and gradually became so powerful that every institution of their country follows its directives in letter and spirit.
During last year’s local bodies’ election is Punjab, there were several instances where district coordination officers (DCOs) not only disparaged DEC’s but in some cases kicked them out of their offices. Two years back a DCO in Balochistan put a DEC in lock-up for a whole night for arguing with him to ensure transparency in a by-election.
Making changes at the highest level will be helpful only when things on ground change.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2016.
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