Keeping talks alive
Breathing life back into the stalled peace process between India and Pakistan is not going to be easy, but if the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan is to be taken at his word, then India remains ready to go ahead with the dialogue. Future talks would include all issues and include Kashmir. These positive sentiments came on May 18 when Gautam Bambawale said that he expected a breakthrough in the resumption of the process of dialogue after the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore. He hoped that secretary-level talks could resume, the most positive sign from the Indian side since the Pathankot attack in January derailed the entire process. As yet there is no date fixed for Mr Modi’s visit.
The distinction between diplomatic window-dressing and statements of firm intent is a fine one, and what an ambassador says may not chime closely with what the government that he represents appears to want to do. India has recently tested a new missile interceptor system and has boosted its efforts to increase second-strike capabilities. This has alarmed Pakistan as well and the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, has said that Pakistan must take the necessary steps to upgrade its defence capabilities — and the seeds of an arms race are again sown, despite the denials of Mr Aziz.
There is particular concern about the nuclearisation of the Pacific Ocean, and both India and Pakistan are in need of modernising their existing forces and weapons systems, significant portions of which are outdated. Military development is an ongoing lateral process and neither side is about to abandon the quest for ever-better hardware and military advantage. The trick is to calibrate that in sync with a civilian government on both sides that does appear to have a commitment to continuing the peace process even in the face of determined efforts to kill it off. Dialogue has the potential to mitigate the tensions caused by weapons testing and development, and for that reason alone, every opportunity to breathe life back into the peace process must be firmly grasped. Seize the time.
Righting electoral wrongs
There is no dispute that there is much that needs adjustment if not actual repair and replacement in the national electoral system. That said, there is considerable dispute about how that should be done, and who should implement the adjustments. The National Assembly has now approved the 22nd Amendment, which assuming it is ratified by the Senate, will change the eligibility criteria for the post of Chief Election Commissioner as well as the members that constitute the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Twice in six years, parliament has made changes at the top of the ECP, the last being in 2011 when retired high court judges were appointed as ECP members for five years and their term expires on June 12 this year.
Whilst improving the ECP’s effectiveness at its apex is important, it is below that apex that most problems with the electoral system lie. The 2013 elections raised many concerns across the political landscape even though independent observers considered them some of the freest and best-conducted general elections they had seen in Pakistan. Better perhaps, but deeply flawed still and the problems mostly arose because of poor training and empowerment of the ECP field staff, the men and women who are the backbone of the electoral process, who make it happen on the day — or not as is sometimes the case. What needs to be considered is the performance of the district election commissioner and his or her staff as well as that of returning officers, and not just that of the apex members of the ECP. They lower-level staff are poorly paid and trained. They are under-resourced, with their offices often situated in rented accommodation that have few creature comforts. That they may not perform their allotted tasks efficiently is perhaps hardly surprising given the lowly status they are accorded. Tinkering with the apex posts of the ECP will do little to fix the systemic problems further down the organisation, and until those are addressed, the electoral system is going to remain flawed.