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The ECP and rigged elections

Published May 16, 2013 09:27am

THE campaigning in the run-up to Saturday and the voting on election day were generally orderly but allegations of rigging were aplenty as the results poured in.

To an extent, the complaints may be due to the misplaced confidence of the defeated party but the clamour is loud enough to call for an impartial inquiry. The admirers of retired Justice Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim — this writer being one of them — must feel quite hurt that such widespread charges should have arisen with a man of his reputation as the chief election commissioner.

He and his colleagues on the commission — all retired judges — were chosen by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, and approved by a parliamentary committee in which the treasury and opposition were both represented. There could hardly have been any other safeguard to ensure the non-partisan character of the commission.

Yet rigging could have taken place, and has perhaps, and the five ageing, retired judges could do little to prevent the tampering with the ballot at thousands of polling stations across the country. They could not have done much. The confidence reposed by the politicians and the people in the commission to organise fair and transparent polls was wholly misplaced.

The undeniable reality is that polls are conducted and supervised by a hierarchy of executive officials ranging from teachers and constables to the chief secretary and the inspector general of the police. In no way do these officials feel answerable to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) which has seldom detected or punished an official for defying its rules. It has not the means to do it.

Reshuffling the officials at the top or even in the middle tier on the eve of elections hardly makes any difference to the polls being fair, because the integrity or political neutrality of officials is hardly a criterion in the reshuffle.

It is just replacing one with another. Woefully, the standards both of personal ethics and commitment to a code of conduct among the officials have been steadily declining because the principle of merit has been progressively abandoned in their recruitment, placement and promotion.

That process, started by Ayub Khan in an innocuous manner, has now become a rule. But it is a tribute to the late field marshal and the values of his time that the young subalterns then inducted in the superior civil service were judged by the army’s own rigorous criteria.

Most of them did credit to the service rather than detract from the standards set by the competitors. Nevertheless, a breach was caused which in the course of time has blurred the line between the independence of the civil servants and their indebtedness to elements outside their ranks — whether politicians or generals.

The point to be emphasised here is that while the ECP must necessarily be independent and meritorious, more crucial to fair elections is the neutrality of the civil service — the police and paramilitary forces included.

It took decades for civil servants, as a national entity, to lose their neutrality but, given the political will, it can still be restored in a much shorter time if parliament and the provincial assemblies agree to amend the Constitution to provide that all inductions in public service at the senior level, say, grade 16 and above, will be through an open competitive system with no room for nomination. For the backward classes and areas some legitimate concessions can be built into the system itself.

Historically, a tragic misfortune is attached to fair elections in Pakistan. The eastern wing of the country broke away in 1971 when the military junta, supported by some impatient politicians of West Pakistan, refused to convene parliament as East Pakistan was expected to claim the prime ministerial post and also vote for autonomy that was greater than the generals and politicians alike were prepared to concede.

The result of the 1970 elections, indeed, took the country by surprise but the tragedy that followed could have been averted in the course of time only through another equally fair election.

This writer was the district magistrate of Karachi at that fateful time. The then chief election commissioner, Justice Abdus Sattar who hailed from East Pakistan, came to Karachi but once. Gen Rakhman Gul was the governor and S. Manzur Elahi chief secretary — both cool-headed, honest men. Against them and the officials down the line there was not even the whiff of a complaint. That was the last glow of fair elections in Pakistan. The surviving half of the country has not seen the likes of them again.

Incidentally, one fails to see the need for caretaker cabinets during the election period when no policy decisions are to be made. Amusingly, while Punjab was content with seven ministers, Sindh chose to appoint 20. Even if they did not, or could not, influence the polls much, they burdened the exchequer with a wholly avoidable expense.

The writer is a retired civil servant.

kunwaridris@hotmail.com