Changing role of the Election Commission


Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam reviews the conduct of Election Commission in the recent by-elections

Election Commission of Pakistan

The performance of the Election Commission of Pakistan in the recently held national and provincial by-elections reveals that the body is trying to straighten out the apparent dichotomy in the nature of responsibilities and the professionals entrusted to discharge them. It clearly appears that the ECP is now performing functions essentially falling under the purview of administrative action and its judicial head is giving way to the requirements followed by the civil servants handling its functions broadly. The resurgence of administrative spirit is what is actually required in the functional discharge of duties.

Since its formation in 1956 the Election Commission of Pakistan existed through political void and was headed by civil servants as was very logical keeping in view that on-ground official affairs are managed by civil servants and electioneering process falls squarely under that purview. The first four Chief Election Commissioners were civil servants— FM Khan, Akhtar Hussain– father-in-law of Mr. Shahryar M. Khan Chairman PCB– G. Moinuddin Khan and NA Farooq. Whatever were the recorded reasons of change in guard from administrative to judicial at the Election Commission but the fact is that this change was not based on unbiased institutional considerations. The decision was clearly motivated by desires other than appropriate.

President Yahya Khan and PM Bhutto, representing military and political thought process, were not enamored of civil service and decided to shun it from ‘manipulating’ the electoral process (although PM Bhutto, realizing the inevitable, tried to ‘manipulate’ elections through civil service in 1977!). Consequently Yahya brought first jurist (Justice Abdus Sattar, later President of Bangladesh) in 1969 to head Election Commission by a presidential order who also supervised the first nation-wide elections in 1970.

The inefficacy of an administrator-jurist combine is manifest in mounting complaints about the performance of Election Commission

This election was widely known to be fair but the reasons for this impartiality were not a judge conducting it but the miscalculation of ruling military junta which expected a severely divided mandate and planned to manipulate it. The plan failed but the practice did not end. President Bhutto appointed Justice Wahiduddin Ahmed through presidential order in 1973 and then replaced him with Justice Sajjad Ahmed Jan through constitutional provision the same year.

The practice took hold simply because it was not put to test through regularly held elections otherwise the flaws inherent in it would have been exposed much earlier. The last 43 years since 1973 have seen 19 regular and acting CECs holding the charge of office (7 of them held this charge on acting basis; a record of sorts!) who were a mixture of eminent jurists and controversial figures. Funnily enough the office of Chief Election Commissioner was occupied between 1977 and 1982 by Justice Sajjad Jan, Dorab Patel, Maulvi Mushtaq Hussain and Karam Ellahi Chohan although no election was held during their tenures!

The inefficacy of an administrator-jurist combine is manifest in mounting complaints about the performance of Election Commission. The inevitable tussle between administrative and judicial aspects of Pakistan is not a hidden fact and its reflection in electoral exercises may not be surprising. Since the first restoration of democratic process in 1988 through to the second resurgence in 2008, the CECs and Election Commission were practically non-entities. The first truly consensual CEC, Justice Fakhruddin G Ebrahim faced an inglorious end when the 2013 election results were contested on behest of a mixture of forces, both hidden and exposed.

Good combination

The fact that the recurrent rigging allegations were wrongly insinuated and the ensuing confusion they brought about clearly show that the judicial organ of the state is not properly equipped to handle a widespread administrative exercise heavily dependent on the performance of grass root administrative machinery. There is an obvious disconnect between judicial and administrative organs whereby top echelons of Election Commission and its secondary machinery miserably fail to coordinate. This dichotomy trickles down to the lower levels as the elections are usually supervised by local level official employees who are lined up by district administration.

While analyzing electoral process in Pakistan it is difficult not to draw a comparison with India since its governance apparatus is most akin to Pakistan. Since its formation in 1950 the Indian Election Commission has been headed by 21 CECs belonging to Indian Civil Services particularly Indian Administrative Service. It has conducted 16 national elections since coming into being by ascertaining will of ever expanding electorate spread over a very wide geographical area. Its successful conduct is due to the deep rooted experience of its top echelons well versed in administrative affairs.

Currently the demand that administrative services may be assigned to hold elections entirely on their own has been mooted but there appears to be no great support for it. While it is a poor reflection on the performance of civil administration but the judiciary has equally failed to deliver. It may be appropriate if conduct of election is handed back to civil administration by amending the relevant clause of the Constitution and revamping the Election Commission.

There is no point in carrying out a public debate about the issue because it will be consumed by unnecessary acrimony and will be consequently shelved. A Parliamentary Committee may be constituted with the remit to propose appropriate constitutional amendment stipulating transfer of responsibilities of Election Commission to civil service along with chalking out fundamental changes in its working.

Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam is an educationist with wide experience


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