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DAWN Editorials – 21st May 2016

Electoral reforms

THE 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, approved unanimously by the National Assembly on Thursday, is a step in the right direction for electoral reforms. At its heart, the polling process is a vast administrative exercise, and the current requirement that effectively only superior court judges can be a part of the five-member Election Commission of Pakistan is flawed. That limited choice was born of the long-standing political consensus that judges of the superior court are the closest thing Pakistan has to competent neutral officials. The demand for judicial commissions to investigate major national scandals is another manifestation of the political suspicion that bureaucrats and technocrats may have some hidden political biases and may try and tamper with elections. But honourable as many ECP members have been, they have struggled with the manifold administrative tasks of organising and conducting polls. Once the 22nd Amendment is signed into law by the president, the pool from which ECP members can be selected will be vastly increased — allowing individuals from the private sector or the bureaucracy with the right credentials to be picked as ECP members. At least at the very top, the ECP may get the right leaders needed for the job.

Yet, five members of the ECP alone, no matter how competent and professional, cannot deliver cleaner and more transparent elections. For that, a raft of electoral reforms are needed at every stage of the election process — reforms which all political parties claim they are interested in and committed to introducing, but somehow have been unable to steer through parliament. Perhaps with Law Minister Zahid Hamid now having returned full-time to the ministry, there will be some fresh energy and impetus injected into the electoral reforms process. But so far, the process in the special parliamentary committee and the various subcommittees it has spawned has been desultory and insular. The process of elections are, in truth, too important to be left to politicians alone — barriers to entry and electoral rules that favour incumbents are not issues that politicians will be keen to address. Perhaps the revamped ECP will be able to take the lead in public consultations and offer its own suggestions. Surely, three years after a general election in which the historic turnout was marred by allegations of fraud the time has come to ensure that the next general election will be better managed, with lower levels of fraud and more transparency.

Both in the region and internationally, countries with similar levels of development as Pakistan have managed to create far more robust systems when it comes to organising and conducting polls. The three basic stages of an election — nominations, campaigning and voting — pose different challenges, but none are insurmountable. A combination of better laws, strong leadership and trained officials who are empowered but accountable is needed. The question is: will parliament deliver?

Perks of power

AT a time when the government is battling to regain its credibility, a most unhelpful motion has been introduced in the National Assembly calling for all members of parliament to be given a hefty pay raise. The motion has asked for a report submitted by a standing committee recommending pay raises to be adopted. The Senate chairman did not entertain the idea at the time, saying it was not the right time to be considering such matters. The raises called for are substantial, especially given that parliament already places a burden of Rs4.7bn on the revenue account, although the figure includes total expenditures including capital costs, salaries and pensions of all staff and officers, and much more. Nevertheless, the costs are substantial and it is worth asking whether this is the right time to be adding to the bill.

The MNA responsible for the report argues that members of parliament are individuals with a “high standing” in society and their remuneration should reflect this. It is true that holding elected office is a high station in life, but the rewards come with responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to share, even if only symbolically, the hardships the government is asking of others. In four of the past six years, the amount for parliamentarians has been increased through recourse to an ad hoc allowance that has almost doubled the remuneration they get. This ought to be enough, and asking for an excessive pay increase at this time, which is what the report is urging, is totally out of place in a country that is still trying to implement an austerity agenda. In addition, the legislators are given ample allowances for travel, stay and telephone use. These perks can be encashed, and in many cases, are also available to family members. Given the facts, the National Assembly should say ‘no’ to the proposed pay raises, and use the vote as an opportunity to indicate that their own welfare comes second. There is no end to demands for increased perks and welfare coming from parliamentarians, whether in the form of official residential facilities, blue passports, exemptions from checks at airports or utilisation of VIP facilities, with even former lawmakers pining for similar treatment. It will make for an unseemly sight if members of parliament are seen giving themselves a pay raise while the finance minister has to struggle to explain new revenue measures in the forthcoming budget.

Cricket fitness at PMA

MANY moons ago, a well-wisher of Pakistan cricket came up with a ‘very practical’ solution to the challenges of having so many candidates for team captain: “Make all of them captain. Appoint a major over them.” For obvious reasons, the proposal was unlikely to catch the fancy of the country’s cricket bosses then but the tradition of trying the military option to deal with a cricketing problem continues to this day. In what must easily be one of the biggest challenges of their professional lives, the national cricketers have been taken to the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul for a fitness programme to prepare them for the coming English tour. The real results of the special arrangement will show once the tour gets under way in July, Pakistanis will, however, be hoping the experience will help these players set new standards and uplift the national side that is more frequently applauded for its skill rather than its physical or mental toughness.

The camp pictures do capture the intensity of the action that had been missing in the team of late, especially in the shorter versions of the game. And while there are some who don’t approve of the sessions at the military academy, many comments posted on the internet make it clear that this is an exercise which has popular support. In fact, some of these remarks are laden with deep meaning, like the one which calls for an even grander, more formal training regime run by the best in the army. For instance, “Let them spend two weeks with Mr Raheel, he will smack the discipline into [them]… If Mr Musharraf has nothing to do, let him give these privileged kids some commando bootcamp training.” Another one says: “Let them also take PMA oath at the end of their training session….” In the fitness of things shall we say? Surely this is one way of showing how keen we are to see our players perform to their full potential.

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