Breaking from a tradition that has historically proven to be the downfall of democracy in Pakistan, the government and opposition managed to develop consensus at a critical time on a key issue: the appointment of the chief election commissioner (CEC).
The longstanding deadlock ended on Monday when a parliamentary panel unanimously appointed Justice (Retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim as the new CEC – under whom the next polls will be conducted.
The agreement on Ebrahim augurs well for the smooth transition of governments for the first time in the country’s history.
Ebrahim, an eminent jurist respected on both sides of the aisle, was chosen out of six contenders by a 12-member bipartisan, bicameral parliamentary committee under a mechanism decided under the 20th Constitutional Amendment, approved earlier this year. The same amendment also elaborates the procedure for handing over powers from the incumbent government to a caretaker setup which will hold fresh elections – a goal that both the government and the major opposition party seemed optimistic of achieving.
PML-N demands early polls
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which proposed the name of Ebrahim along with two other candidates, said in a prompt reaction that it would now immediately seek fresh polls. A top PML-N leader said that, as one milestone has been achieved, the party would push the situation towards another one.
“We think the economic degradation of Pakistan cannot be stopped as long as we have an instable government,” PML-N deputy information secretary Ahsan Iqbal told The Express Tribune. “We need to have a stable administration in Islamabad also because it is important for the country when the world starts withdrawing from Afghanistan next year,” added Ahsan, claiming his party would now push the government for polls “within this year” without divulging details or a given timeframe.
The final approval for Ebrahim was given by the parliamentary committee headed by Religious Affairs Minister Syed Khursheed Shah of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) after more than three months of overt and covert talks.
The PML-N apparently pulled out of talks with the government when the Supreme Court disqualified former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani after he was convicted for contempt of court charges in April. However, dialogue between the government and opposition resumed after Raja Pervaiz Ashraf took over as Gilani’s successor last month.
According to sources on both sides, secret dialogue between Shah and Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan paved the way for a consensus. There was no official word from PPP headquarters as to why the government had accepted the nomination by the opposition, but party leaders said fears that the acting CEC would appoint a caretaker government in case of a complete breakdown/deadlock in talks was one of the main reasons.
According to the 20th Constitutional Amendment, if the incumbent government and the opposition fail to appoint the chief election commissioner, the acting CEC would stay and have powers to choose people for the caretaker setup. The acting CEC Shakirullah Jan is a serving Supreme Court judge and thought to be one of the closest individuals to Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The PPP-led government has virtually sparred with the Supreme Court for its entire term. “This is what was behind the PPP acceptance of Ebrahim,” said a PPP leader requesting anonymity.
Khursheed Shah praised Fakhruddin as an honest, dedicated and experienced person having respect across the political and legal spectrum of the country, adding that he hoped he would deliver as the new CEC.
Justice Shakirullah Jan and Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid were the two other PML-N panelists for the post under which the upcoming general polls would be held. On the other hand, the PPP had proposed Justice (Retd) Munir A Sheikh, Justice (Retd) Amirul Mulk Mengal and Justice (Retd) Zahid Qurban Alvi.
Under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the tenure of the CEC had been increased from three to five years. The procedure for the appointment of the CEC has also been changed since the post was earlier appointed by the president. Now, however, under Article 213 of the Constitution, the prime minister in consultation with the opposition leader in the National Assembly is required to forward three names to the parliamentary committee for confirmation of one of them.
Other political groups including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) also welcomed the appointment.
“We welcome his appointment … he is a man of integrity and we hope elections will be fair and transparent under him,” PTI’s spokesperson Shafqat Mahmood told The Express Tribune.
JI’s Liaqaut Baloch also praised Ebrahim, while the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) also welcomed the appointment and hoped that Ebrahim would ensure the free, fair and impartial elections in the country and play an active role in promoting democracy in the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2012.