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Going too far: ECP’s nomination forms

March 13, 2013

THIS is an exciting moment in Pakistan’s history, with the country heading into its first democratic transition. And part of what makes it promising is the presence this time of a bold, active and independent Election Commission of Pakistan that is willing to step on some influential toes to make elections freer and fairer.

The ECP should function independently of the president, so the law ministry’s demand that the amended nomination forms for election candidates needed his approval had no merit and the commission took an important step by proceeding with the printing of the forms anyway. The move sent a strong message that the ECP is beholden to neither the government nor the head of state as it prepares the country for polls.

But reformist zeal doesn’t have to mean creating needless complexity and treating all politicians as if they have something to hide. Critics of the amendments have a point: several of the new questions are unnecessary and intrusive. Graduation is no longer required for contesting elections, so the continued focus on documenting educational qualifications, for example, feels like a witch-hunt rather than a constructive move forward. Details about assets already appear on the tax returns candidates will submit with their applications. Whether or not candidates are living within their means is a matter for the Federal Board of Revenue to investigate, so the need for the ECP to ask detailed questions about travel and other family spending remains unclear. If the FBR doesn’t have returns on file or complete information about a person’s financial situation, or the numbers don’t quite add up, that would warrant a deeper look to see if a particular candidate is evading taxes. But the ECP has neither the time nor the resources to sift through reams of data supplied by every applicant.

Perhaps the least defensible question of all, though, is about what candidates have done for their constituencies. That is for nobody but voters to decide. The notion that our politicians are incompetent is entirely justified, but that doesn’t warrant asking them to prove their contribution in any court outside that of the people. Together with some of the other questions, this one too reveals a suspicion of democratic politics that runs through the new nomination forms and, given Pakistan’s history, has the potential to feed the dangerous perception that perhaps civilian governments are not right for this country.