Fair CEC, unfair polls

Published: August 17, 2012
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The writer is a retired civil servant who has served in senior posts including chief secretary of Sindh and federal secretary.

The writer is a retired civil servant who has served in senior posts including chief secretary of Sindh and federal secretary.

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.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Shahid
    Aug 17, 2012 - 10:51PM

    Even the 1971 polls were not so fair. The back-stage funding of candidates to make sure unliked politicians were not elected (ala IJI-Mehran Bank) did happen.

    Maj Gen Ghulam Omar, father of PTI’s Asad Omar (former CEO Engro), who was the Secretary of Yahya Khan’s National Security Council, did arrange funding for Muslim League Qayyum Faction so as to dent Bhutto’s position in West Pakistan. That did not result in much success. Gen Umar’s other glorious involvements in Operation Searchlight, Operationm Blitz and general role in 1971 can be read in many books on the subject.

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  • Mirza
    Aug 18, 2012 - 12:06AM

    We are corrupt and imperfect country, how can you expect a fair election from these same govt servants who are not totally honest? This would be a miracle that an elected govt is completing its term. The elections would be held under a unanimous neutral setup and there would be an interim setup with the consent of most elected leaders. The elections would be held under a voter list that was prepared under the SC instructions and IK’s appeal. Last but not the least, there is not a single political prisoner in Pakistan.
    We cannot ignore all these giant steps first time in the history of the country and concentrate what is not there. Of course the elections would be conducted by the same fed and provincial officials who live and work in Pakistan, and you know they are mostly corrupt. That is why PML-N is powerful in Punjab despite IK’s popularity.

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  • Falcon
    Aug 18, 2012 - 12:22AM

    Very insightful analysis. Some people have already started questioning sudden increase in allocation of education budget in Sindh this year since this might be used as an under-cover to funnel money to polling staff who are usually allocated from the local education sector.

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  • Meekal A Ahmed
    Aug 18, 2012 - 3:12AM

    Glad to see you are still writing, Sir.

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  • Zahid Saeed
    Aug 18, 2012 - 9:52AM

    Glad to see your columns again. I would suggest that elections be done in stages (staggered) ie. one province at a time, same as it is conducted in India. This way it will be ensured that maximum deployment of security forces in each province.. This will ensure security for the large segment of educated urban population to come out of the suburbs without any fear to vote. Results of the elections will of course be declared after all provinces have voted.

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  • Saad
    Aug 18, 2012 - 3:32PM

    It is mind blowing how the writer is jumping to conclusions without any basis. He swiftly alleges without any basis whatsoever that President plans to rig the electoral machinery the CEC notwithstanding. One can see an increasing number of articles aimed at discrediting the upcoming polls and the latest target seems to be the inability of the new CEC as he stands too tall for his integrity to be questioned.

    After the farcity and the rigging of electoral machinery by deep state in Multan bye election by none other than a sitting Supreme Court judge the writer would do well to take a note of ground realities one of which is that PPP vote bank stands solidly behind the party cadres.

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  • Asghar Ramzan
    Aug 22, 2012 - 9:08AM

    the very concept of holding election and supervising polls by people belong to the judicairy is flawed one. I am witness of the scenes that those people cant do any thing when it comes to admistration ,law& Order and logistic aspects of polling . they become at the mercy of local administration who in turn exploite the situation in their own benefits. what is needed is to hold election in a fully accountable district Administration rather then so called honest people from judiciary.the history may not repeat itself in every particular, but it seems that we are treading the ways we have already travelled before.

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