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July 11, 2012

THE nomination of Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, has ended the months-long wrangling between the PPP and the PML-N over the appointment of the next chief election commissioner. This is welcome news at a time when the democratic project could certainly do with a boost. For a while it had appeared that egos were going to keep the two sides deadlocked on the appointment of a new CEC. Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar in particular appeared determined to get his way, wanting one of his three nominees to get the nod from the parliamentary committee even if other qualified and non-controversial candidates were brought into the mix as a compromise. In the end, with a new prime minister in the saddle and the PPP facing uncertainty over his fate, the party acquiesced.

What remained was to convince a reluctant Mr Ebrahim to accept the CEC slot ahead of a general election. While health concerns will remain, the octogenarian Mr Ebrahim is certainly a man of integrity and forthrightness and under his watch the Election Commission of Pakistan could come closer to playing its rightful constitutional role in the holding of an election. While the challenges will be immense — free and fair elections, or at least freer and more fair than have been held to date, are rarely in the interests of the political class and the other powers that shape elections here — this is perhaps the right moment in Pakistan’s history to work towards making the electoral process more transparent and fair.

But the deal between the opposition and the government to elect a new CEC goes beyond the matter of elections. It is yet another sign that if given the time and space to work out their differences, politicians can and do deliver. That basic argument for the continuity of the system is often ignored in Pakistan and drowned out by the protests against governmental incompetence and parliamentary toothlessness. While criticism of the present government is all too real and meaningful, there have been notable achievements, particularly from the structural point of view. The 18th Amendment to give more power to the provinces and disempower the president’s office; the NFC that has given more resources to the provinces to deliver on an expanded range of responsibilities; the 20th Amendment that built on the 18th Amendment to give more autonomy to the ECP are some well-known examples. Now the biggest challenge is ahead: a legitimate general election conducted under the auspices of the civilians. They may just deliver, if given the time and space.