The National Assembly passed the bittersweet 20th Amendment unanimously last week; bitter because it was necessitated by the government's desire to give cover to repeated violations of the 18th (also unanimously passed) Amendment, and sweet because the opposition saw it as a bargaining opportunity and brought the government around to accepting its proposals that could pave the way for fair elections in the country. The parliamentarians elected in unconstitutional by-elections and threatened with being thrown out of the Assemblies by the Supreme Court, have heaved a sigh of relief. The PML-N is upbeat because the national and provincial caretaker administrations and Election Commissions for holding the elections will be constituted through consensus between the government and the opposition in the National and Provincial Assemblies. The PPP-led government is happy that another immediate crisis has been averted and it will have another democratic feather to boast about in the next elections. The citizens of Pakistan, however, are not amused.

The high point of the unanimously passed amendment is the agreement reached between the coalition partners and the opposition parties regarding the mechanism to appoint caretaker governments and Election Commissions through bipartisan consensus. In an environment where the sitting governments are seen as flouting all laws and rules to promote their partisan interests, any elections held under them and their handpicked Election Commissions would have been controversial and the chances of a smooth transfer of power slim. The 20th Amendment is expected to result in neutral caretaker administrations and independent Election Commissions to hold the elections, and given the present state of affairs, it is a step in the right direction. Other aspects of the amendment, however, point at a more basic problem plaguing our democracy that is unlikely to go away regardless of any amendments to the Constitution.

Take the case of an independent Election Commission that was supposed to have been settled by the 18th Amendment. The Commission was to be appointed by the Leader of the House in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. It is obvious that the provision envisaged the constitution of a Commission that was acceptable to both the government and the opposition, and hence credible. What we saw instead was a lot of hair-splitting about what the word consultation means and an Election Commission under the much-trumpeted 18th Amendment was never constituted. That didn't stop the Election Commission handpicked by the government, that had become unconstitutional after the passage of the 18th Amendment, from holding one by-election after another, announcing results and populating the Assemblies with illegally elected members. One hopes the 20th Amendment will produce better results.

After all, words of democracy are meaningless without the spirit it takes to implement them, and those in charge of our destiny seem to have very little of it, if any. Let's not forget that the 20th Amendment would not have seen the light of day, if the relevant provision of the 18th Amendment had not been so blatantly violated. The discussion on the amendment was not initiated by any desire to strengthen the democratic process, but essentially to give constitutional cover to an illegality. The give and take that ensued might have produced some positive outcome for democracy, but it was more of an off-shoot. Besides, what is the guarantee that the positive words of the 20th Amendment will not be flouted or subverted by a government that flouted and subverted the equally positive words of the 18th Amendment? Has it been imbued with the spirit of democracy?

Such power play bargains at the cost of democratic principles might produce short-term gains, but eventually, they erode the credibility of the democratic process that is being viewed by more and more citizens as something the people and parties in the Assemblies do to protect their vested interests, rather than a system that serves them. Who can blame them for wondering when the system will start performing its core task? This is not to suggest that the government should not perform the task of improving the laws that govern the democratic system, though in this case this has happened more as a side-effect. But surely, this is not the only task of the government. Such fine tuning of the political system becomes even more irrelevant in the public perception when it is not accompanied by any sign of good governance that could make their lives better. It becomes a farce for people whose lives are getting worse by the day.

All this power play in the name of democracy could be forgiven and forgotten if one could see fair and non-controversial elections at the end of it. The 20th Amendment might be a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. The by-elections were tainted not only because they were held under an unconstitutional Election Commission, but also because they were held on the basis of electoral rolls that include approximately 45 percent bogus votes. The unconstitutional Election Commission is dragging its feet and making all kind of excuses to delay their correction. It has failed to update them to include fresh voters, who have reached the voting age since their compilation. It is obvious that even if the caretaker setup and the Election Commission are appointed through bipartisan consensus, any elections held on the basis of faulty electoral rolls could never be considered fair.

Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan, who is one of the petitioners before the Supreme Court for correcting the electoral rolls and whose party seems all set to be one of the main contenders in the next elections, does not see the recent constitutional amendment as a guarantee for fair elections. He has dismissed it as powerplay bargaining between the two major parties in Parliament and raised unaddressed questions about the fairness of next elections. His concerns cannot be dismissed lightly. What if the electoral rolls are not corrected and updated in time for the next elections, and to save democracy, the parties in Parliament decide to amend the Constitution once again, giving a green light to the holding of elections on the basis of bogus electoral lists?

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: hazirjalees@hotmail.com