Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Jan 16, 2014

Bowing to the inevitable The Supreme Court (SC) has sensibly accepted the plea of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that it is not possible to conduct the local bodies elections in Punjab and Sindh on the previous announced dates of January 30 and January 18 respectively. What has persuaded the SC is the further complications that have arisen in the path of holding these elections. Previously, the ECP had argued before the SC during former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s tenure that delimitation controversies and the impossibility of printing the required number of ballot papers within the required time necessitated a postponement. At that time, the SC would have none of it, and insisted the elections be held on the above dates. Perhaps the SC then was suspicious of the intentions of the provincial governments, given the track record of political governments being reluctant to hold local bodies elections since they imply the devolution of power from the provincial legislatures to local elected councillors. Whether such suspicion was justified or not, the SC was impervious to the practical difficulties enunciated repeatedly by the ECP. To add to that conundrum, the Lahore High Court (LHC) and Sindh High Court (SHC) have struck down the delimitations carried out by the provincial governments. While the Sindh government has announced its intention to challenge the SHC’s verdict in the SC, the Punjab government is silent on the issue. What we are now facing is an inevitable and perhaps relatively long drawn out process of the matter of delimitations being settled through a judicial process, including the issue of who should conduct the delimitations, given that the SHC wants a neutral commission to be created for the purpose while the LHC ordered the ECP to carry out the task. These anomalies need to be sorted out in the interests of consistency. We have argued in this space that the ECP should be charged with this task as the institution with the responsibility for conducting credible, fair and free elections at all tiers of the democratic edifice. The question of printing the ballot papers too ran into the obstacle of the Security Printing Corporation and Printing Corporation of Pakistan expressing their inability to print the millions of ballot papers required within the given previous timeframe. Now another question could arise if any of the candidates who submitted their nominations decide to withdraw. That would mean drawing up a fresh list of candidates, implying further possible delays in the ballot papers printing process. To allay the disappointment of the candidates who have submitted their nomination papers according to the previous schedule, the ECP has said they should keep their fees receipts safe since they would still be valid once the new dates are announced. Those dates remain open after the SC allowed the ECP to reconsider the dates after assessing the time required making the necessary arrangements. The legal challenges and required changes in the Sindh and Punjab local bodies laws too will have to be seen through before any final date can be announced. The good news is that Balochistan having conducted its local bodies elections last month despite scepticism regarding the credibility of those polls, the local bodies elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Islamabad and 43 cantonment areas will be held, probably on the previously announced date of February 28. We had previously argued in this space that the haste around holding local bodies elections because of the pressure of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry SC did not make sense in the face of the practical difficulties. Further, that suspicions about the politicians’ anti-devolution predilections notwithstanding, the heavens would not fall if the polls were delayed by a few months in order to make proper preparations for a credible polls process. Time and circumstances have conspired to bring about a sensible recognition of the ground realities, and the legal and legislative challenges in the offing. The post-Iftikhar Chaudhry SC having wisely done the sensible thing by bowing to the inevitable and allowing the ECP time to make the necessary preparations, it would not be sensible, wise, or politic for the Punjab and Sindh governments to drag their feet on the issue beyond what is absolutely essential and unavoidable, from practical steps to the legal and legislative processes. That would only bring them, and the ECP, further down in the eyes of the people, confirming the perception that the provincial governments in Punjab and Sindh wish to cling to their powers, not allow the bottom rung of the democratic system to come into existence, and are anti-devolution, a change that promises more responsive governance to the common citizen at his doorstep.

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