As requested by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the National Judicial Policy Making Committee (NJPMC) has acceded to the ECP’s request to allow judicial officers to act as Returning Officers (ROs) and District Returning Officers (DROs) in the coming general election. This was decided in a meeting chaired by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. It had become necessary because the NJPMC had prohibited judicial officers from accepting executive assignments. This included appointment by the ECP as ROs and DROs. The NJPMC placed conditions on the appointments, both for the officers, and for the ECP. The officers were not allowed to let their routine judicial work slide, and were to perform election duties in extra hours before and after court timings. The ECP was told to facilitate the polling staff by providing all possible logistic and financial support.

The judicial officers have been preferred by the ECP as ROs and DROs ever since 1988, because they were thought to be more neutral than the officers of the executive, who had acted before, and who were subject to government influence. Also, as the work involved making decisions, which could be appealed to judicial forums, judicial officers were well able to handle the task. However, Chief Justice Chaudhry said that this adversely affected judicial work, and it was decided to keep it aloof from elections and make it focus on the administration of justice. On the other hand, as he said, the returning officers and the polling staff had a key role in the election process. So in view of the confidence of the masses in the judiciary, the meeting was convened, to determine to what extent and in which form the judiciary might take part in the election process so that its impartiality and independence should not be questioned.

The NJPMC’s permission should not be taken to mean that the old cozy way of doing things, with judicial officers being used by both federal and judicial governments to fill posts with any legal work involved. As such the ECP itself is an organization at some distance from the executive, and thus accession to its request does not mean any desire to end the separation between judiciary and executive mandated by the constitution. It merely reflects the NJPMC’s understanding, shared widely, that the coming elections are very important for the country’s future, and that the ECP will not easily find a body of people so well suited to playing the role of ROs and DROs. However, there will be no failure in that respect, and the integrity of the elections will not be compromised because of such a lack. The elections are very important because the country has only just had democracy restored, and with recent reforms, the ECP is more prepared than before to take up the challenge. However, now that it has been equipped with this tool, it should live up to the expectations of the nation, and conduct exemplary elections.