THE challenge to ensure free and fair polls manifests itself in different forms, including making sure that the state machinery is not used to influence the electoral process. In this regard, the Election Commission of Pakistan ordered the Sindh government on Thursday to transfer over 60 bureaucrats; the ECP had received complaints that the officials in question had loyalties towards the PPP. On April 2 it had ordered the federal and provincial administrations to change the respective secretaries, though the governments were given the option of retaining officers if they deemed it necessary. Sindh had witnessed some bureaucratic shuffling in the days before the caretaker government took over, while some political elements have complained that the interim provincial set-up is itself not free from bias.
There can be little argument that the ECP must level the playing field as much as possible to ensure credible polls. Suspicions about civil servants linger because the bureaucracy nationwide, particularly in Sindh and Punjab, has been stuffed with ‘lateral entrants’ and political appointees often at the cost of merit, thanks to the patronage-driven political system prevalent in the country. But having said that, there must be solid evidence that an official has used or intends to use the state’s machinery to influence the polls; merely having sympathies for a party should not be the only reason for transferring an official as no one is completely free of bias. There is also the danger of tarring all officials with the same brush and possibly making things difficult for civil servants when the next elected government takes over. Such a large-scale transfer has not been ordered in the past and it seems this is another example of a newly empowered ECP trying to assert itself.
Also, what guarantee is there that the batch of officials brought in will be completely neutral? The ECP should proceed with care and only take action where there is clear proof of misuse of power or similar concerns. For example, transfers make sense if an official is posted in a constituency where his or her relatives or associates are contesting. In the longer term, the country’s political culture needs to change so that the civil service and other organs of the state are immune to the effects of patronage politics. Red lines must be drawn so that political inclinations do not colour the decisions or duties of officials during the elections or at other times.