The appointment of Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) has raised widespread hope that the next elections will be fair. The chief contenders for power — the PPP, the PML-N and Imran Khan’s Tsunami — have hardly ever agreed on any issue of importance, but they have all welcomed ‘Fakhru Bhai’s’ appointment.
But let not that unanimity delude the people into believing that the election campaign and the polls will also be fair. President Asif Ali Zardari’s emphatic claim that his party would sweep the polls in all the provinces may be wholly contrary to the findings of the pollsters but should not be dismissed as mere wishful thinking.
President Zardari seems to know more than his rivals that the election commission can only lay down the system and procedures that enable the parties to campaign freely on a level pitch and the citizens to vote freely. But the government officials bribed by the candidates, or coerced by their bosses, can queer the pitch.
The appointment of an impartial CEC is the first crucial, but relatively easy, step towards fair electioneering and voting. No less important, but open to greater controversy, would be the appointment of the caretaker governments at the centre and the provinces. But the clincher must lie in the selection of the administrative heads of police, revenue, irrigation, etc. at the districts and their officials down the line.
The election commission officials, in the first instance, are too few to intervene, even if they want to, and the polling staff drawn from a variety of departments would rather go by the direction of their superiors who preside over their careers rather than listen to a passing election officer. Secondly, both are open to bribery or coercion by the local bigwigs.
The point to emphasise here is that for the polls to be reasonably free (they can never be totally fair), the CEC must have a decisive say in the appointment of the caretaker chief executive of the country, and even more so of the provinces, who for their impartiality must be judged more or less on the same criteria that applies to the CEC.
Justice Ebrahim would do well to confront the heads of all political parties with this proposition straightaway rather than later acquiesce in political nominees as prime minister and ministers who undermine the free vote while the election commission only harangues or watches helplessly.
Even an impartial caretaker government will have a hard time in choosing neutral district officers as the civil servants, for over a generation now, have routinely tended to associate themselves with one or the other political leader or party. Still, it should be possible to select from among the lot those who are least politicised or are known to have suffered at the hands of party governments for not being ‘helpful’.
Justice Ebrahim’s observation that the elections of 1971, 1988 and 2008 were fair has been questioned by many. There is indeed a basis for questioning the total fairness of the elections held in 1988 and 2008 but hardly any for the fateful election of 1971. The wry joke that fair election will only break the country may come to haunt us again. But this time round that would be more true of a rigged election.
This writer then happened to be the district magistrate of Karachi. Once the governor, General Rakhman Gul, made it plain that there should be no interference in the polls and the officials knew that they would stand to suffer if they did, the political leaders of the time testified that there was no interference at all. Some of them are present among us today — Professor Ghafur Ahmed and Syed Munawar Hassan (then a youth leader and now Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami) and Hafeez Prizada of PPP — to affirm it. Some irregularities inevitably occurred but no rigging was alleged. During the campaign, the CEC, Justice Sattar, a dignified man, visited Karachi twice only to repose full confidence in the neutrality of the local administration.
Germane to the fairness of the electoral process is the accuracy and completeness of the electoral rolls. Justice Ebrahim may rightfully disown any responsibility for errors and omissions as the rolls were prepared much before he came on the scene. Nevertheless, there is still time to rectify the obvious defects. The allegation that a large number of Pakhtun voters have been excluded from Sindh rolls needs to be investigated as the number of voters in Sindh has gone down while in Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa it has gone up. Then the Ahmadi voters, said to number a million, arbitrarily deleted from the rolls by an executive order of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf in the dying days of his power must be reinstated if the former dictator’s action is held to be illegal or unjust.
Righting of the rolls, demarcation of the constituencies afresh, where necessary, and arrangements for voting in a peaceful atmosphere constitute a formidable challenge even for a man of Justice Ebrahim’s credentials. In the installation of a neutral and competent caretaker government lies his first test. The second, but no less crucial aspect, would be the turnout of voters.
My late friend Rahim Bakhsh Soomro, a minister in Sindh’s first cabinet and son of a chief minister of colonial times, gave up contesting elections because of the mounting cost. According to him, the transportation and feeding of the polling agents and voters on the polling day alone cost up to Rs20 million. Despite that, the voter turnout in no past election exceeded 40 per cent. It is for the CEC to think what his order of limiting the total electioneering expense to Rs1.5 million will have on the turnout, if the candidates somehow were made to comply.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2012.