Poll law shenanigans

Published October 4, 2017

A single clause has undermined, perhaps undone, the painstaking work of over four years that went into the consolidation of the country’s electoral laws and preparing the ground for free and fair elections in 2018.

The legislative clause is enormously significant in the context of the current political crisis in the country, and may even have deepened the predicament.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is once again the president of the PML-N, elected unopposed a day after the government ensured passage of the Elections Bill, 2017, in the National Assembly.

The PML-N argues that it has corrected a legal distortion that was introduced by a military dictator to separate legitimate civilian leaders from their parties.

But that argument is vastly undermined by the fact that the PML-N had to change the party constitution as well in order to re-accommodate Mr Sharif and that at no point during the years-long parliamentary debate on electoral reforms was any attention drawn to the need to change that particular rule.

Simply, Mr Sharif has had himself reinstated as the official leader of the PML-N because neither he nor his party is willing to accept his disqualification from public office by the Supreme Court as politically legitimate.

That is deeply worrying.

Controversial as Mr Sharif’s ouster from the prime ministership may be, events from the explosive Panama Papers revelations to the final verdict of the Supreme Court raised a number of troubling questions about the Sharif family’s wealth and assets.

Even if the disqualification itself was for judicially questionable reasons no independent legal observer would suggest that the case of Mr Sharif and his family did not deserve to be sent to the accountability courts.

So even if an immediate disqualification had not been ordered, the country did not deserve to have a prime minister facing a serious corruption probe.

Extending that argument to the head of a political party would be equally valid.

Shambolic and ill-prepared as the opposition was in the National Assembly, a PML-N majority guaranteed that a vote on a matter of intense personal interest to Mr Sharif would not be lost.

It should not have come to this.

A better path would have been for Mr Sharif to exonerate himself in the accountability courts and then attempt a return to front-line politics.

That he has chosen the more confrontational path suggests that another person-specific change, the next time a constitutional amendment to the disqualification criteria, may also be on the cards following Senate elections in the new year.

That is a distressing possibility, not least because it would deepen political uncertainty ahead of general elections instead of mitigating it.

Wise counsel does not appear to prevail at the moment, but it is hoped that common sense will assert itself sooner rather than later.

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2017

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