THE minimum electoral reform agenda was missed in the passage of the 20th Amendment. In a volatile political environment at the ‘desire’ of the Supreme Court, parliament evaluated electoral laws but came short of real electoral reforms. Here was a unique opportunity to include in the 20th Amendment the recommendations of the electoral reform caucus of parliament but unfortunately we didn’t see that happening. I had personally been leading one of those caucuses in my parliamentary days and so I am eyewitness to the wealth of superb recommendations parliamentarians from all sides of the divide could have included in the 20th Amendment. The 20th Amendment is being hailed by parliamentarians as creating the democratic way to producing a caretaker government.

In developed democracies there is hardly a concept of caretaker governments because the job of conducting elections belongs to an independent election commission. Considering the fact that we have been born in a tradition of mistrust of the outgoing government over conducting free and fair elections, and military coups our Election Commission has never been independent. As such progressive politicians like us have a responsibility to push two types of electoral reforms: firstly those that define a neutral caretaker government and secondly those that enhance the powers of the Election Commission. Any change driven political party would have been expected to give this reformist agenda but unfortunately they are equally full of political fluff. Here is the reformist agenda that all parties should consider as derived out of the informal parliamentary electoral caucus.

Firstly the concept of neutral should have been defined as all those ministers who: 1) will be treated as government officials in terms of rules and regulations 2) will not be able to contest elections for two years 3) will not have explicit political affiliations. The methodology to choose the caretaker PM and CMs is causing much grief outside parliament. Firstly technically there is nothing wrong with leaving the decision with the Leaders of the House and Opposition. Legally that involves all of parliament. Unfortunately, in practice in Pakistan, often the Leader of the Opposition only represents the largest opposition party versus all the political forces of opposition. Nonetheless this methodology could have been made foolproof by having a committee of all parliamentary party heads thus reducing the chance of mistrust.

Secondly those political parties outside parliament are claiming that they have not been consulted. Those parties which are hundreds in numbers cannot technically be consulted and accommodated so their grief is slightly overrated. Some of them think they have more of a right to be consulted than others, which is legally wrong since all of them are equal in status in terms of the law.

The correct approach would have been to make the Election Commission more independent and for that the following could have been done: 1) Establish in election law that the Election Commission will have final approval over rules and regulations on the conduct of elections. 2) Establish in election law that the ECP will have the authority to alter its organisational structure and to manage its own budget, giving it authority to approve that budget, maintain accounts, create posts, and authorise supplementary grants. 3A) Establish in election law that the ECP will have the authority to appoint District Returning Officers and Returning Officers from among all citizens. 3B) Establish in election law that the ECP will have full authority over seconded staff to direct, sanction, and remove such staff while conducting elections on its behalf. 3C) Establish in election law that serving judges of superior and subordinate judiciary shall not be assigned the responsibilities as District Returning Officer and Returning Officers. 4A) Establish in election law that the government entities will not become involved in electoral processes without specific direction from the Election Commission of Pakistan. 4B) Establish in election law the suspension of any public functionary who during an election, fails to comply with the directives of the ECP, despite notice. 4C) Establish in election law that Presiding Officers will have the authority over police and security forces in enforcing rules at polling stations. 5) Establish in election law that subject to reasonable restrictions, the ECP must allow public access to its records, meetings and allow for public consultation in decision-making processes. 6) Establish in election law that the ECP must issue regular reports to parliament annually and following each general election.

There are many other ways to making elections free and fair but those are not directly related to making Election Commission independent. The bottom line is the 20th Amendment is a reasonable start. However, it’s not logical that the effort was not comprehensive considering the consensus reached in the caucus. Maybe Senate can rectify the Assembly’s misses in the 20th Amendment.