BELATEDLY waking up to the need to appoint a permanent chief election commissioner, an office temporarily occupied by Supreme Court Justice Shakirullah Jan, the government is trying to kick-start the appointment process. However, tardiness almost invariably creates unforeseen problems and that is exactly what has happened here. For weeks after the retirement of Hamid Ali Mirza as CEC on March 16, the government appeared in no hurry to work out a list of three consensus candidates in consultation with the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. The PML-N had already signalled its divergent views on who should be appointed the next CEC and perhaps the PPP saw fit to not push the issue immediately. But then the Supreme Court handed down a conviction against the prime minister that could end up before the Election Commission of Pakistan as a disqualification reference and suddenly the role of the CEC became more pertinent — as his would be one of five votes cast by the ECP to decide any disqualification reference against a parliamentarian. Presumably, the PPP felt that the interim occupant, a serving justice of the Supreme Court, would not look very favourably on the PPP’s arguments if it came to deciding whether Prime Minister Gilani stands disqualified as a result of his conviction by the Supreme Court. Hence the belated urgency.
Of course, the slightly unexpected limelight on the ECP and the CEC gave the PML-N yet another opportunity to noisily oppose the PPP and for a while it looked like the proceedings of the 12-member parliamentary committee that is to elect the next CEC would descend into farce. But allowing common sense to prevail, the PML-N has not created hurdles in the election of a new committee chairman, the re-elected Khursheed Shah of the PPP, that was necessitated after the Senate elections of March. Still, with five members among the 12 on the committee belonging to the PML-N, the party effectively wields a veto over the election process as eight votes are needed according to the rules of business to elect a new CEC.
What happens next will depend on the maturity that the two sides squaring off in the parliamentary committee can demonstrate. An overly stubborn PML-N could push the PPP to try and change the rules of business and have a CEC voted in with less than eight votes. An overly clever PPP could derail the appointment process by refusing to compromise with the PML-N. The country needs a permanent CEC, particularly with a general election on the horizon. Surely there exists a qualified candidate somewhere in Pakistan that both sides can agree on.