A government consists of three branches, the executive, legislature and judiciary. Each of these branches is supposed to be independent of each other but they also need to closely coordinate with each other. As its name indicates, the legislature is elected by the people to enact laws for their collective benefit and to uphold the rule of law. The judiciary interprets the implementation of laws where disputes arise and upholds independence of the judiciary. The executive runs the government in line with the rules of business and is assisted by a cabinet, bureaucracy and the institutions established by the constitution and by its own executive acts in carrying out its mandate. This is as far as the theory of governance goes. When the balance between these branches is disturbed, democracy is under threat.
In Pakistan, democracy has always been under threat for one reason or the other. One of the reasons for this is governance by ordinance even when elected civilian governments were in power. According to Article 89 of the Constitution, the President has the power to issue ordinances when both houses of Parliament are not in session and when he is satisfied that circumstances exist which justify promulgation of an ordinance to meet an urgent situation which cannot wait. The life of an ordinance is 120 days, after which the ordinance is to be laid before Parliament to be extended for another 120 days or passed as law or allowed to lapse. Once an extension has been made, it cannot be extended further. However, all governments in the past have used this as a backdoor entrance to push for executive action which they could not take through the parliamentary route because they either did not have the required numbers to pass the requisite legislation in Parliament or when they received an institutional opinion against an action which could only be countered by promulgation of a new ordinance.
At the next Senate election scheduled for 3 March 2021, 48 new Senators will be elected in the 104 member upper house for a period of six years. The PTI government proposed a departure from the traditional secret ballot of the electoral college comprising the provincial assemblies and the bicameral houses of Parliament in the centre. In January 2021 it consulted the Election Commission about the interpretation of Article 266 of the Constitution but it received a negative response. The Election Commission said that any change in the method of conducting the election of the Senate would require an amendment in the election rules to be approved by Parliament. The Election Commission was the correct forum to approach and give advice because it is a statutory body established under Article 218 of the Constitution to conduct the election of both houses of Parliament.
The government said it wanted the open ballot for the Senate election in order to prevent horse-trading, which is a sophisticated name for taking political bribes. This has sullied the reputation of the country’s legislators and exposed them as political opportunists and corrupt leaders violating Article 63 of the Constitution. The government’s initiative was both admirable and understandable as the key focus of the ruling party has been its anti-corruption drive in politics and public office, above any other government business. However, after receiving the advice of the Election Commission on 16 January, the government should have taken a bill to the Parliament to amend the Election Act of 2017 accordingly. But instead of doing so, it made use of Article 186 of the Constitution and referred the open ballot issue to the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion.
Up to this point it was all in order and had the opposition in disarray because the financiers of the alleged horse-trading in the forthcoming Senate election are believed to be more in the opposition ranks than in the government. In any case the government has an empty treasury to indulge in such luxuries. But on 6 February, the PTI government, following a meeting of the Cabinet earlier in the week and after receiving the assent by the President, promulgated Ordinance 2021 amending the Election Act 2017 and requiring the Election Commission to conduct the Senate election through an open and identifiable ballot. The Ordinance also enables the head of a political party to see the vote of his party’s legislators. Having gone to the Supreme Court for a reference, the government should have waited for the apex Court’s opinion before bringing out the Ordinance. And if the government were going to do this in any case because it does not have the required numbers in the National Assembly to amend the Election Act 2017 on its own, then it should not have gone to the Supreme Court in the first place.
Ignoring the advice of the Election Commission and involving the Supreme Court in this matter and yet coming out with an Ordinance to have its way, revealed three things about the government. One: that the PTI government is determined to put an end to alleged horse trading in the electoral college of the Senate election in the absence of clarity in the current election laws. Two, the government has been in a reaction mode ever since it came to power. It did not prepare adequately for the Senate election last year when there was enough time to bring a bill in the Parliament and debate it before amending the Election Act 2017. Was it a legislative omission or a deliberate ambiguity on the part of the government because horse-trading is a numbers game and can be advantageous to political parties when the players doing the high bidding are on their side? Three: that the PTI government is no different from its predecessor governments when it comes to using the power of promulgating an ordinance if it can bypass the Parliament to achieve its political goals, notwithstanding its popular national anti-corruption agenda.
The government has unwittingly walked into a difficult position by promulgating this Ordinance. The Ordinance will have an impact far longer than its short life of 120 days, if it is not subsequently enacted, because 48 Senators who will be elected by open ballot will remain members of the Senate for six years. If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court upholds the view of the Election Commission, the government can face an embarrassment because its position on the Ordinance will become indefensible.
The open ballot controversy over the Senate election will die down after March election. It may never arise again. But it leaves a question for the civilian politicians. For how long the Constitution and laws of Pakistan will be set aside on one pretext or the other because someone in the executive notices that they do not serve the executive’s policies and need to be amended further. It also places in doubt the commitment of the government as a whole to respect the rule of law and follow it in good faith instead of changing its language every few years.
* The author is a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He can be reached at email@example.com