ECP delay

November 30, 2019

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THERE is never a dull moment in Pakistan’s politics. Although the saga around the reappointment/ tenure extension of the army chief is over for now, another administrative crisis looms. The chief election commissioner will be completing his term later next week and his retirement will render the currently incomplete Election Commission of Pakistan, which is already short of two members who retired in January, dysfunctional. Given the deadlock between the government and the opposition over their replacement, few expect the process of finding a successor to the current CEC to begin anytime soon. When ECP positions fall vacant, the Constitution requires they be filled within 45 days. This condition has not been met in the case of the vacancies created after the retirement of members from Sindh and Balochistan because of a hostile relationship between the government and the opposition parties. It is feared that unless there is a sincere effort to come to an agreement, the replacement of the CEC will be delayed for a long time.

The failure of the government and opposition to appoint ECP members even after several months speaks volumes for the confrontationist nature of our politics and the existing acrimony between the two sides. The government is largely to blame for this impasse. The Constitution provides that the prime minister must initiate the process of replacing the CEC or an ECP member by consulting the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. A 2013 Supreme Court interpretation of the law requires these consultations to be ‘meaningful’, implying that the two sides should try to reach an agreement over the new appointments. In case of lack of consensus, they must send three names each to a 12-member parliamentary committee for decision. But the Constitution is silent on how to proceed in case of a tie in the parliamentary committee, which comprises an equal number of lawmakers from the treasury and opposition benches.

The scheme of ‘meaningful consultations’ can sometimes be quite frustrating, especially when the two sides decide to stick to their positions. But this is precisely the kind of situation where the ‘art of the possible’ can lessen mutual hostility and help resolve political differences for the country’s good. Imposing its choice on the opposition seldom works; such a move always backfires as it did when the PTI tried to unilaterally induct its own ECP nominees in August. In fact, the delay in the completion of the ECP has given the opposition the upper hand in the matter of appointments. It will now be in a stronger position to force the hand of the government when the latter tables the bill defining the terms and conditions governing the service of the army chief and his reappointment/ extension as per Supreme Court instructions. The sooner the government mends its ways the better it will be for all.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2019