Kanwar Muhammad Dilshad
RETIRED Justice Altaf Ibrahim Qureshi, a member of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) from Punjab, on Friday took the oath as acting Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). The oath was administered by ECP member from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) retired Justice Irshad Qaiser under Article 217 of the Constitution, a day after Sardar Muhammad Raza retired as CEC after completing his five-year term in office. Interestingly, after the retirement of the CEC, the ECP is left with only two members — both have been unconstitutionally appointed. Article 207 (2) of the Constitution reads: “A person who has held office as judge of the Supreme Court or of a high court shall not hold any office of profit in the service of Pakistan, not being a judicial or quasi judicial office or the office of Chief Election Commissioner or of Chairman or member of a law commission or of Chairman or member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, before the expiration of two years after he has ceased to hold that office.” Justice Irshad Qaiser became the first woman member of the ECP within 45 days of her retirement as a judge of the Peshawar High Court on June 14, 2016. Similarly, Justice Altaf Ibrahim Qureshi retired as a judge of the Lahore High Court on March 5, 2015, and thus had more than seven months to go before the completion of the two-year post-retirement period when he was appointed to the Election Commission in July 2016. Under Article 218 of the Constitution, the Commission consists of Chief Election Commissioner and four members — one from each province.
According to Article 219 of the Constitution, the Commission is charged with the duty of preparing electoral rolls for elections to the National Assembly and provincial assemblies, and revising such rolls annually, organising and conducting election to the Senate or to fill casual vacancies in a Provincial Assembly, appointing Election Tribunal, holding general elections to the National Assembly, provincial assemblies and the local governments; and other such functions as may be specified by an Act of Majlis-i-Shoora (Parliament). The currently dysfunctional ECP cannot perform these functions. A meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on appointment of ECP members ended in a deadlock last week, with the Opposition insisting that the government first come up with the names of nominees for the post of Chief Election Commissioner. The demand came when retired justice Sardar Muhammad Raza was still holding the office, though the Constitution provides 45 days for the appointment of CEC and ECP members after their offices fall vacant. While Pakistani politicians are sometimes selectively targeted, the task of strengthening a central pillar of democracy belongs to them and to no one else. It is in their hands to make the Election Commission of Pakistan functional again. With the retirement of the chief election commissioner, retired Justice Sardar Muhammad Raza, on 5th December, the ECP has become non-functional. Many fundamental ECP activities stand suspended, among them the scrutiny of funding for political parties. The situation is not helped by the fact that the ECP was already two members short of its mandated strength. The nomination of these two members had been a bone of contention between the treasury and opposition, and the government’s attempt at resolving the problem via a Presidential Order was thwarted by Mr Raza himself. He declared the presidential action illegal, thus casting serious doubts on the government’s motives; tensions that already existed between the two sides were exacerbated.
Since then, both the Government and Opposition have proposed individuals of their choice for the post of the ECP Chairman as also for the Sindh and Balochistan vacancies. The chief judge of the Islamabad High Court, while hearing a petition, has [expressed] confidence in the ability of parliament to resolve this problem. Yet concerns remain, not the least serious of which is caused by the dynastic nature of parties where all decisions have to be taken by one or two people at the top. It is far from an ideal state of affairs: one party supremo is expected to set the direction from his hospital bed, while the parliamentary opposition leader has to take time out from tending to his ailing leader and elder brother to scrutinise a long list of people who could, on merit, make it to the ECP. Also problematic is the acrimonious attitude of the ruling party whose chief is trained to view all opponents as worthless and corrupt. This is by no means an easy affair. Picking an ECP chairman and two Commission members requires negotiating skills of the highest order. It is all the more difficult to build consensus in a country polarised along so many lines. Parallel to the intra-politicians fight, there is an ongoing battle where the politicians as an interest group are pitted against those who condemn them en masse as useless, selfish individuals who are unable to overcome their differences, ranging from petty considerations to matters of ideology. The politicians as a whole seeking vindication of their role have to close ranks to prove that their journey on the path to true, unhindered democracy has not been without dividends. They must jointly and with the requisite dignity resolve this issue of ECP membership without further delay.
—The writer is former Federal Secretary Election Commission of Pakistan and currently Chairman National Democratic Foundation.