IT’S that time of the year again. Switched off, dozing off, waiting for the month to end and things to pick up again — it’s hard to find much of interest or to hold folk’s interest for long. Hence a lot of that silliness on TV this week. But scratch around a bit and there is a thing or two that can be found.
Have a look over at the judicial commission. It was supposed to be a blockbuster. The fate of the May 2013 election hung in the balance. Fireworks were expected. And then — nothing. Exactly as expected.
The chief justice will spend his last weeks in office sifting through long-winded presentations masquerading as evidence and writing up a lengthy report on the election. He needn’t bother.
Here’s a perfectly good summary. Imran Khan wanted to be prime minister. Imran Khan didn’t become prime minister. Imran Khan refused to accept he didn’t become prime minister.
Nobody thought May 2013 was free and fair. It was, though, credible and acceptable. But credible and acceptable can be improved on.
So much for May 2013. But in the backward-looking mandate, there could have been forward-looking changes. Nobody thought May 2013 was free and fair. It was, though, credible and acceptable. But credible and acceptable can be improved on.
In three areas defects were revealed: polling, tabulation and storage. If you screw up the polling process, the sanctity of the ballot is violated. If you screw up the counting process, the principle of every vote matters is lost. And if you screw up storage and safekeeping, the rights of the candidate are violated. All three happened in May 2013 and its aftermath. To get to free and fair, all three of those problems would need to be fixed.
The commission has already blown one opportunity for change. Public interest in the commission is low. And low public interest translates into no pressure for change. Partly it was the content, which was beyond the commission’s control. When stuff hinges on what was in Form 15 and where was Form 14 and whatever the hell is Form Whatever, people tune out.
But the commission could have ginned up interest. You can imagine an Iftikhar Chaudhry or a Jawwad Khawaja would have created a headline or two.
Say something outrageous. Ask a cutting question or two. Get people interested. None of that happened, so people aren’t interested at the moment.
Without public interest and media pressure you can’t imagine the politicians taking electoral reforms seriously. And if the politicians don’t take it seriously, reforms won’t happen.
There is though another chance for the commission. Do the unexpected. Produce a sensational report. A slashing, brutal report that uses May 2013 to build momentum for change.
But that’s also the problem. A slashing, brutal report would get the country’s attention and put pressure on the pols to get serious about poll reforms.
Though how do you produce a report that grabs attention but also carefully weighs at what point irregularities tip over into mass fraud and an unrepresentative parliament? That may be a trick too far for this most placid of courts.
Which is a pity because the key reform is easy enough to figure out: work on the ECP. Both in its constitution and its workings, the ECP, the guys tasked with holding elections, is unfit for the task.
Which is odd because twice now in recent years the ECP has been constitutionally strengthened. But it was strengthened in a way that responded to old fears, not present-day needs.
Basically, the 18th and 20th Amendment tinkerings were designed to give the ECP members security of tenure. Y’know, to prevent politicians from sacking them and replacing them with more pliable alternatives. That’s a good thing. The bad thing was whom the constitutional amendments settled on as the embodiment of a good ECP member: effectively, retired members of the superior judiciary.
Here’s the thing with retired high court and Supreme Court judges, even the noblest among them: they aren’t administrators. And elections are essentially vast administrative exercises.
Once upon a time, the problem was an ECP that would sign off on or look the other way when a strongman tried to manipulate elections. Like in 2002 and 2008. Y’know, when actual rigging happened.
An honest, scrupulous retired judge with security of tenure as an ECP member probably won’t sign off on naked manipulation. But that’s only the top-down kind of manipulation, the systematic kind that really only the army can engineer.
In civilian times, the manipulation is localised and all too easy because of a weak link — that between the five-member ECP at the top and the vast army of election officials out in the field.
Security of tenure and strong powers means nothing unless you know how to work with the army of officials deputed to work for you.
Remember, the folk who actually conduct the polls aren’t employees of the ECP, they just report to it for a few days around the time of an election. That right there is the weak link — and why you need strong administrators.
To translate the powers the ECP has into a smoothly functioning, scrupulous and responsible election machine at the level of the polling station and constituency, you need someone at the top who knows how to coax and cajole and get the best out of local workers. And who isn’t afraid to use the stick when necessary.
Retired, upstanding members of the superior judiciary just aren’t cut out for that. But never mind — you’re bored already. Which is exactly the point. Reforms are unsexy and details wearisome — but they’re also what build institutions.
Unwittingly, the judicial commission may have just proved the point: good judges tend not to know how to gin up interest or work the political process. Or run an election.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2015