While the Elections 2018 has been an enormous learning experience, there are three takes that require an informed debate and remedial action before the Elections 2023. These relate to the caretaker set-ups at the federal and provincial levels, the composition and the role of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the de-politicisation of bureaucratic leadership.
Most opinion would agree that the caretakers have become the worst anachronism of our political scene. The manner of their selection involves ridiculous political jockeying by the selectors and worst horse-trading when it comes to selectees. One sees gentlemen professionals angling for positions that would, in theory, make no difference to the betterment of the socioeconomic condition of the country. Quite a few fall into the trap of imagining a longish technocratic set-up that would take the country on the high road to development. In terms of performance, no caretaker set up has ever been judged as neutral. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t” is the common spectacle. Other unelected but more powerful institutions of the state expect them to take decisions that elected politicians find it hard to take. The competing politicians accuse them of overstepping their mandate and leaving an unwanted baggage. Pakistan is the only parliamentary democracy that continues to suffer this anachronism. Let the incumbent government assume a caretaker mould for a fixed period before, during and after the elections, with a clear set of rules to be followed and with the ECP in the driver’s seat.
This brings us to the ECP. Holding an election is a huge administrative, not a judicial, exercise. The practice of appointing retired members of the judiciary to the ECP has not worked. Elections require field experience, an understanding of security requirements and a mastery of the state machinery to appreciate where and when the government in a caretaker mould is overstepping and take timely and effective measures to stop it. Honourable judges do not have these kinds of expertise. They tend to leave such matters to the secretary of the ECP, who is not necessarily the best officer of the administrative cadre. A well-respected senior officer, assisted by chief secretary-level officers in the provinces, is likely to deliver much better. For matters that require adjudication, the ECP may have a separate judicial branch. Finally, limited resources are spread too thin for the vast operation. Consideration should also be given to conducting the polling in phases. This will allow effective deployment of human and other resources.
The politicisation of bureaucracy has become unstoppable. The moment a political party assumes the reins of power, it starts looking for loyalists. Unmerited promotions, violation of seniority and discriminatory use of perks and privileges are used to buy out loyalties. These partnerships in rent seeking are deemed to be a necessary condition for political delivery. In the case of parties that have been in government from time to time, it is easy to predict the names of the bureaucrats who would occupy prized positions. Time has come to recognise this reality. It is understandable that a new government should have people that it can trust to achieve its objectives. There is a case for introducing here what the Americans call the spoils system. Just as the Constitution lays down the percentage of the parliamentarians who can become ministers, prime minister should have the right to directly appoint a certain percentage of civil servants attached to his office and some other ministries. They should enter and exit with the government employing them. The idea should form part of the civil service reform.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 10th, 2018.