THE much-debated, long-delayed judicial commission to investigate allegations of fraud and misconduct during the 2013 election appears finally to be near creation, with the PML-N and PTI unveiling a preliminary agreement on Friday. If the committee is in fact formed and begins its work — between the stalling tactics of the PML and the mercurial demands of the PTI, nothing should be assumed — it would represent the politics of cooperation reasserting itself after a dangerous spell of brinksmanship that had threatened to destabilise the democratic system itself. That the PTI and PML-N have also agreed to take the so-called terms of reference agreed between them to the political parties for their input is also a welcome move: while it has often shaped up as a private battle between the PTI and PML-N, the tussle over the 2013 election results affects all parties — and, far too often forgotten, the voters themselves.

What is especially promising about the preliminary agreement is that it appears to strike the right balance between concerns about electoral malpractices at the constituency level and the need to respect the broader, democratic system. The 2013 election clearly did not establish some kind of ideal to aspire to — but it was almost universally hailed as an improvement on previous elections. The goal was and remains to ultimately have free and fair elections, though that does not mean anything short of that is not credible or acceptable. For too long, the PTI seemed to focus on the smallest details — perhaps because its real goal was to topple the government. Similarly, for too long, the PML-N seemed focused on the big picture — perhaps because its sole goal was survival. Neither of those approaches was an improvement on the democratic process because it put power and survival ahead of everything else. Now, the PML-N appears to finally be recognising its wider, systemic responsibilities as does the PTI, offering some hope that electoral malpractices will not only officially be identified, but also curbed ahead of the next elections.

It is that latter part — electoral reforms — that may ultimately prove to be more difficult. Much as the PTI has done a service to democracy by demanding reforms and the PML-N seems willing to countenance them, political parties deciding among themselves the rules of the electoral system is unlikely to ultimately produce a corruption-free, untainted electoral process. For that, the process of debating and proposing reforms needs to be open to the public too. Hold public hearings, ensure that parliamentary meetings are open and solicit as wide a spectrum of expert opinion, locally and internationally, as possible. That alone will nudge the country towards a transparent and fair electoral system — lowering the barriers to entry in politics and ensuring only legitimate votes are cast and counted. But will it happen?

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2015

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