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The mechanics of an election

August 04, 2012

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THE new Chief Election Commissioner, Fakhruddin Ebrahim, is a respected gentleman who has served the country in various legal and judicial capacities for over half a century.

He is an upright man of principles and all the political parties have unanimously lauded his appointment; observers believe that it will lend credibility to the upcoming elections.

Elections in Pakistan have long suffered from a credibility crisis. Since the end of the Zia era, one major measure that the state took to inject credibility into the elections is the induction of judicial officers in the election administration. This, in a way, built upon the sense of the constitutional provisions that require the CEC to be a retired judge of the Supreme Court whose repute is considered above board.

But are judges the best persons to be entrusted with this task? They may enjoy good reputations but that does respect produce efficiency? More importantly, what does the electoral process itself demand?

An election is primarily an administrative exercise. It comprises a long chain of intricately linked chores that appear deceptively simple. Furthermore, matters that look trivial can assume great importance under specific circumstances and may suddenly become national issues.

Consider, for example, the act that every elector has to perform — marking the ballot by impressing the inked stamp on the spot that bears the name and symbol of the candidate of his/her choice. It looks simple and in most instances it is so. But at the time of counting the ballots, the presiding officer has to make sure that the mark doesn’t touch the area of more than one candidate; if it does, the polling agents of both those candidates can claim that vote.

In the case of a controversy, the presiding officer has to assess that what portion of the stamp impression lies in which candidate’s area. To facilitate this, the stamp impression is designed to be a grid of 16 small squares. The officer is guided to ignore the squares that cross the line, separating the area of two candidates, and count the ones falling fully in each candidate’s area. So if five boxes are crossing the line, with five falling in one candidate’s area and six in the other’s, the latter will be declared the one who polled that vote. If the contest is close, this one borderline vote can assume great importance.

This may sound finicky but it is certainly not far-fetched. Remember the high drama in the US presidential election in 2000? George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won the electoral college vote on the back of a very slight majority in Florida.

Now add to this very demanding precision the massive scale at which it has to be repeated. For the 2008 elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan set up 64,176 polling stations covering virtually every corner of the country, from Sindh’s sparse katcha areas to the treacherous heights of the Chitral mountains. Each area poses its own set of climatic, logistical and security challenges.

Running the election machine is a Herculean task. The management structure typically follows a pyramid of hierarchies. The central secretariat is at the top, followed by provincial offices, returning officers for each constituency and finally, presiding officers for each polling station who head on the average a team of nine persons. In the last election, 572,000 government employees performed polling-station duties — and this did not include those performing security duties and serving in other indirect ways.

What further complicates things is the fact that all this staff is borrowed from other departments, mostly education. They are generally ill-trained in this role, poorly motivated and underpaid. The election allowance for a presiding officer was Rs150 per day and Rs125 for other members of the polling staff in 2002.

In the prevailing security situation and given the heightened tempers of election days, presiding over a polling station is like going to war unarmed. The staff virtually has no security cover. That, in fact, is simply not feasible as it would take a full-fledged army to guard 65,000 locations against armed assaults. The polling staff has no option but to do as told by whoever controls the polling station. Election duty is anyway no opportunity to perform heroics in our country.

These are the dynamics of administering an election — complicated chores performed on a massive scale under varied conditions by non-specialised staff exposed to often violent local political struggles. Now, how is a retired senior judge best suited to supervise and direct this operation?

When the judicial cadre was appointed to perform the duties of returning officers for the first time, in 1988, the president realised that they lacked administrative experience and thus issued separate orders asking the deputy commissioners (who were earlier assigned these duties) to offer full assistance. Practically, the deputy commissioners remained in charge of the electoral processes while judicial officers served as the credibility cover.

Indian law does not require the CEC to be a retired judge. Instead, they have the commissioner and other officers from the administrative cadre, appointed for a six-year term or till the age of 65, whichever comes first. Indian law is founded on the understanding that elections are an administrative operation.

Elections in India are a much bigger exercise than in Pakistan and, of course, held more regularly and frequently. Uttar Pradesh alone has a larger population and more voters than all of Pakistan. India’s Election Commission commands respect and hardly any election results are disputed by political parties.

The credibility of an institution such as the Election Commission is not an issue of hiring reputable people as brand ambassadors; it has to be an outcome of its mastery over executing electoral chores with utmost precision and with unflinching commitment to the principles of non-partisanship. That might be the hard way to acquire credibility but that’s the only way there is — there are no shortcuts.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.