TIMELY elections are, indeed, important for the democratic process. But it is equally important for citizens to be able to make an informed decision. For that, the electorate must know that the candidates are credible and bound by a moral code of behaviour as enshrined in the Constitution. Democratic accountability means empowering citizens to reject corrupt and ineffective rulers and to be able to choose better representatives.
In suspending the decision of the Lahore High Court that had restored the mandatory information and declarations of assets required from the candidates, the apex court appears to have bypassed a fundamental principle of democratic accountability. The chief justice’s stance that restoring the old nomination forms could cause a delay in the upcoming polls may not come across as convincing.
It is imperative to ensure that the elections are held on time, but they must also be free, fair and transparent. It is vital that the electorate is provided with complete personal information about the candidates and their assets. While in previous elections, it was a mandatory requirement, the provision was not included in the new electoral law.
It is inexcusable the way political parties came together to defend the controversial change in poll laws.
“The lack of disclosure and information ... essentially means that a voter will not have the required information on the basis of which an informed decision can be made,” declared Justice Ayesha Malik of the Lahore High Court in her judgement. Denial of a fundamental right that enables the electorate to make an informed assessment of aspiring lawmakers raises questions about the transparency of the coming elections.
But the chief justice has set aside the ruling on the grounds that restoration of old forms at this stage could delay the polls. “Parliament is autonomous; what can we do when it has already legislated?” he declared. Indeed, it is the prerogative of parliament to make laws; but it is the responsibility of the judiciary to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. Moreover, the additional requirement of information may not necessarily delay the polls as being feared by the court and some political leaders.
According to some legal experts, the nomination forms can be uploaded in no time and can easily be filled within the stipulated time for the filing of the nomination papers. Many are using the bogey of ‘democracy under threat’ and conspiracy theories to cover up the questionable and undemocratic action by parliament.
It is inexcusable the way all political parties came together to defend the controversial change in the electoral laws that would allow even people with criminal records to stand in the elections. The plea that the Lahore High Court ruling came too close to the elections is also not relevant. It seemed a deliberate move by the PML-N government to drag on the case. It took six months for the government to submit its response to the court.
The controversial amendment in the Election Act was passed by parliament last year. Now the candidates are not obliged to provide information about their tax returns, dual nationality status, education and source of income. It makes them virtually above the law, further tarnishing the image of our civilian political leadership.
With this amendment in place, no judicial action can be taken against those hiding their assets and details about their source of income. The amendment has helped remove the sword of disqualification hanging over corrupt lawmakers and other political leaders. Not surprisingly, the bill had received support from political parties across the board. The way the bill was passed by parliament also raises questions about it legality.
According to some legal experts, parliament had infringed on the Election Commission’s authority in the matter. The Lahore High Court in its ruling asserted that while parliament can make laws to regulate the conduct of elections, “the ultimate authority and responsibility to ensure free and fair elections is of the ECP”.
In fact, the ECP had initially questioned the authority of parliament to change the electoral rules. But later, it changed its stance. The commission also became a party in the petition to the Supreme Court challenging the Lahore High Court decision.
During the hearing of the petition, the ECP’s attorney admitted that mandatory provisions of the law had been ignored and vital information not been provided for in the forms. In fact, the ECP in a letter to the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms requested that it should be heard by the committee before any draft was prepared. However, the request was ignored.
Through this amendment, political parties may have protected their leaders and lawmakers, but it will have serious implications for democracy in the country. It has certainly damaged the image of parliament and elected representatives.
Rule of law and accountability are two important pillars of a liberal democracy. A major weakness of the democratic process in Pakistan is that lawmakers are not bound by code of moral behaviour enforced by judicial authority. Nothing could be worse than the growing public perception that a major endeavour of parliament is to provide protection to the misdeeds of politicians.
These two pillars ensure good governance. They are also essential for the development of democratic institutions. While the country is close to achieving an important milestone in the second consecutive transition from one elected government to another, there is a greater need for making the election process more democratic and transparent. The electoral law amendment has shrunk the space for growth of democratic values. It would make elected representative less accountable. Elections would become controversial if the amendment is not reversed.
The restoration of the old nomination papers would certainly improve democracy in the country. The demand for greater transparency in the electoral process must not be misconstrued as a conspiracy to postpone the elections. We may be very close to the polls, but it is still not too late for the restoration of the old form. Voters must be given due respect.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2018