ISLAMABAD - The treasury and opposition benches may not come together any time sooner to choose a new chief election commissioner (CEC) while the existing procedure on the CEC’s appointment needs a constitutional amendment, noted electoral experts suggest.

The acceptance of Justice (Retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim’s resignation and scheduled elevation of a Supreme Court judge as the acting CEC has led the debate to extensive rounds in the privy electoral circles on having the new CEC chosen. Considering the months-long deliberations coupled with hectic rounds of negotiations between the government and opposition to finally evolve a consensus on getting Ebrahim elevated as the CEC in July last year, it makes a tough call to base a reasoned assumption about the time it would actually take to have the prestigious constitutional slot occupied. With no clear signs reflective of the politicians’ immediate intention to take up the matter in near future, the prevalent uncertainty simply adds to the mystery.

In separate conversations with this correspondent, two electoral experts sounded unanimous in their views that the constitutionally prescribed method to pick a CEC and the four ECP (Election Commission of Pakistan) members needed to be amended for allowing the appointment of the non-judges on the CEC slot. “Judges should not necessarily be tasked with administrative assignments. It’s not their job,” Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDT), commented on the constitutional provisions making it necessary for the CEC and the ECP members to be former judges of the superior judiciary.

“This has denied several competent fellows the opportunity to hold the constitutional slots at the ECP despite having an impressive track record.”

Mehboob cited the Election Commission of India as an example in support of his contention. “Never do we get to see former judges calling the shots at the election commission in India. It’s simply so because that’s not their job. The people from the Indian civil services head the Indian election commission and they perform their duties pretty effectively,” the electoral expert referred to the customary practice of appointing former bureaucrats as CECs in India.

“Heading the election commission is more of an administrative job and the bureaucrats are in better position to do so.”

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob agreed to the observation that choosing the new CEC was an extensively time-consuming process. “That’s not going to be easy. Particularly, when you have to pick out of a limitedly available lot of former Supreme Court judges,” he told The Nation.

The law, Mehboob pointed, allowed an acting CEC to continue till the regular CEC appointment. “The acting CEC can continue for indefinite period provided that the government and opposition fail to select a permanent CEC whereas a permanent one has to be in the office for five years. That’s probably why the acting CECs have spent more time in the office than the regular ones in Pakistan’s history.”

To respond to this situation, a constitutional amendment is necessary by means of creating more options for selecting the CEC, the president PILDAT recommended. “The options need to be broadened. The politicians should be having more choices to choose a CEC instead of relying on a handful of former SC judges. This way consensus on any candidate could be reached fast.”

Article 213 (2) of the Constitution of Pakistan provides, no person shall be appointed to be commissioner (CEC) unless he is, or has been, a judge of the Supreme Court or is, or has been, a judge of a high court and is qualified under paragraph (a) of clause (2) of Article 177 to be appointed a judge of the Supreme Court. The Article 177(2)(a) reads: “A person shall not be appointed a judge of the Supreme Court unless he is a citizen of Pakistan, and, has, for a period of, or for periods aggregating, not less than five years been a judge of a high court.”

Former secretary ECP Kanwar Dilshad said the absence of constitutionally prescribed timeframe for choosing the CEC was a major hurdle in the quick completion of this process. “This allows the politicians to keep the matter lingering in case they don’t arrive at a consensus because constitution is simply silent on providing any time period to chose a CEC within.”

Dilshad seconded Mehboob’s views on amending the constitution to allow the non-judges’ elevation at ECPs’ constitutional slots, the CEC and members. “The existing constitutional provisions really narrow down the options to get the most suitable candidates for the ECP, which often ends up in deadlock (between government and opposition). The constitutional provisions should not be restricted to declaring the former SC judges eligible for the CEC-ship or ECP memberships. The technocrats, electoral and constitutional experts and former bureaucrats should be given equal opportunity to present their services for heading the ECP.”

The prime minister shall, in consultation with the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, forward three names for appointment of the commissioner (CEC) to a parliamentary committee for hearing and confirmation of any one person, the Sections 2A and 2B of Article 213 respectively read.  (2B) The parliamentary committee to be constituted by the speaker shall comprise of fifty per cent members from the treasury benches and fifty per cent from the opposition parties, based on their strength in Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament), to be nominated by the respective parliamentary leaders:

Provided that in case there is no consensus between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, each shall forward separate lists to the parliamentary committee for consideration, which may confirm any one name:

Provided further that the total strength of the parliamentary committee shall be twelve members out of which one-third shall be from the Senate.

Provided also that when the National Assembly is dissolved and a vacancy occurs in the office of the chief election commissioner, (the total membership of the parliamentary committee shall consist of) the members from the Senate only and the foregoing provisions of this clause shall, apply.