IN an incredibly bizarre move, the government has called upon the chief election commissioner and other members of the Election Commission of Pakistan to resign because in the eyes of the government this august body failed in its duty during the Senate polls. Quite obviously, the government is targeting the ECP for the defeat of its finance minister, Hafeez Shaikh, by Yousuf Raza Gilani in the election of senator from the capital’s constituency.

The ECP had only announced the result of the secret balloting for the seat in accordance with the law. It was not possible for it to accede to the government’s irrational demand to depart from the procedure prescribed by the law and conduct the election through a show of hands as fancied by the prime minister. The ECP cannot concede the prime minister’s wishes so long as the relevant law is not changed.

Unfortunately, the prime minister has not built a case for change in the existing procedure. His opinion that the prescribed mode of election should be changed is not backed by any research nor has he presented any cogent arguments in support of his contention. In these circumstances, there was no legal ground for changing the election procedure.

It should not be impossible for the government to appreciate the constitutional status of the ECP and its autonomy within the prescribed limits. The ECP’s freedom from government interference is in fact one of the foundations of democratic governance. If the government wants the commission to work in a manner other than what has been prescribed and toe its line it has to amend the Constitution. But then the system will no longer be democratic.

It should not be impossible for the government to appreciate the constitutional status of the ECP.

The crux of the matter is that the prime minister does not accept the system of secrecy of ballot which is one of the pillars of democratic management and wants to replace the entire system of governance with what is described as open management that can be monitored by himself. This thesis is not backed by any authoritative study or consensus among acknowledged experts. It rests solely on the unelaborated opinion of a single individual.

The prime minister perhaps wants every state functionary to be working in the open so that an authorised person can keep an eye on him. There is no indication of the source of this idea or of its being practised in any part of the world.

The problem is that this idea of open government is not feasible because governance is a multidimensional and complex affair that is beyond any human being’s capacity to handle alone. After centuries of trial and error, humankind has evolved ways and means of dealing with matters of public concern with reasonable efficiency and the search for improvement has not ended. All societies can adapt standard practices to their own circumstances.

Unfortunately, many societies have strayed from the path of justice in defining the relationship between the individual and the collective and cannot establish an order based on equity. Pakistan is one among a large number of countries in this category and it must find a way to work for the greatest good of the greatest number.

The trouble begins when a country is required to break with traditions that are considered sacrosanct but which have lost their intrinsic value. Pakistan has made no serious effort to abandon its colonial legacy. The evolution of a new tradition is not easy, especially if one is guided by whim. It is not difficult to identify the mistakes made by the custodians of power over the past many decades. But it is not easy to get the state to change its habits. For such a change, much more than a mere desire for change is needed.

Unfortunately, the present custodians of power are not clear about the system of governance they want to follow. They keep referring to the state of Madina but they cannot see beyond the Ziaul Haq model of authoritarian rule wrapped up in a package of religiosity. In fact, the whole matter has been reduced to rhetoric. During the nearly three years of its reign, the PTI government has not created any institution or even a cell to draft the outlines of the promised state. The result is that nothing has been done to remove the flaws in the system of governance inherited from the colonial masters.

Further, policy changes and alterations in systems of work are not done in the light of meaningful inquiry and research. That a plan for administrative overhaul is in the offing is known but the essential question is the government’s readiness to accept constraints to its power, dictated by the principles of justice and equity. A government that does not accept restrictions on its authority will quickly degenerate into unmitigated tyranny.

What the government must not ignore is the fact that its authority can be circumscribed by the demands of public good. Institutions like the ECP are vitally needed to prevent states from undermining citizens’ basic rights. An election commission that is treated as the authority’s maidservant cannot perform the duty of guarding the rights of citizens. The government must therefore desist from interfering with the ECP’s autonomy. It is a happy paradox of democracy that the state cannot control the instruments of governance created by it. The judicial institutions are one example of such exemption and the electoral institutions are another.

Another worrisome aspect of the matter is the possibility of undue interference in one sector of governance generating a chain reaction across a wide area. Today, the government wants to tame the ECP; tomorrow it might start curtailing the independence of the judiciary. The move to downgrade the ECP will hit the interests of the state and the people both, and the sooner the government realises its mistake of tampering with the autonomy of the election commission the better for all parties it will be.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2021

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