So finally the new Chief Election Commissioner has been sworn in, has found his desk and chair in his impressive office in the election commission based on Constitution Avenue, made friends with the tea boy and now reality hits home. Justice Sardar Raza Muhammad Khan has accepted a job where the upside is little and downsides are many. He now has 90 days to show us what he intends to do, as Michael Watkins, a management guru pointed out: “the actions you take in your first three months in a new job largely determine whether you succeed or fail.” In the first 90 days, a new CEO needs to decide whether the ship he has joined (a) needs to be turned around – because it is in crisis or confusion; (b) whether it needs to be realigned or (c) the organization is in great shape and the same things need to be continued.

The institution of the Election Commission of Pakistan stands in between needing to be turned around and being realigned. The fact that we have a functional ECP is a good beginning because it is the bulwark of democracy; however there is a lot of work to be done from here onwards; starting with how it is constituted, how it carries out its mandate and how it implements its decisions. While how it is constituted is something only the parliament can decide, the Chief Election Commissioner has a role to ensure that the ECP carries out its mandate and pursues it vigorously for the implementation of its decisions. He needs to plan a thought out approach to the ECPs remit rather than ad hoc reacting to events as placed in front of him by the political stakeholders in the system. There are a couple of action items that should be on his agenda as he sets out his priorities for the next three months and beyond– local government elections, alleged rigging in the 2013 elections and how to ensure that it does not happen again and restoring the credibility of the ECP.

Local Government Elections is the most important because by ensuring these happen it will also help to restore the ECPs credibility as a functioning institution. These elections are extremely important for deepening and spreading the roots of democracy with parliamentarians playing the role they should be as legislators rather than involved in ‘kutcherie’ politics. Elections have not taken place in the last five years on one pretext or another, despite being constitutionally provisioned for under article 140 A. All the provinces after a lot of dilly dallying finally passed the local government bills by end 2013, and the Supreme Court in its 20 March 2014 decision had instructed the ECP to carry out the delimitation of constituencies and carry out the elections.

The ECP is waiting to hear back from the Sindh and Punjab governments with regard to the demarcation of areas under their prerogative. Both provinces have also asked to be given till the end of December to make further amendments to their local government acts. The ECP has claimed that it is training district officers in delimitation and that this training will be completed by the second week in January. But alongside this, it also needs to be ascertained where we stand on the printing of the necessary ballot papers or is this something that will wait till after the delimitation exercise and the training exercises are complete; acting as another delay? KPK government has also recently announced that it will forgo the electronic voting machines requirement that it wanted before conducting local government elections.

The second agenda item is a political hot potato - the alleged rigging of elections. The CEC can take strength from the fact that he comes with a clean slate and had nothing to do with the controversial elections in question. However, an audit has to be conducted of the elections given the questions that have arisen. If not the 100 percent that we saw post Afghanistan election earlier this year then at least some decent percentage so that the Pakistani people feel that their hearts and minds are being reflected by the political system. The ECP should ensure that scanned form 14s of the 2013 elections are put on their website as per their commitment before the election; an inability to do so despite a lapse of 18 months has dented their credibility with regard to their motives. With regards to future elections, magnetic ink and electronic voting machines can all be looked into, but technology is not the solution; it is institutional integrity and processes which matter.

With regards to the credibility of the institution of the ECP – It doesn’t seem to understand – it is the representation of the demos – its role in nourishing democracy is above that of any political player – political parties and prominent individuals will come and go – but to sustain true democracy in Pakistan, the ECP needs to believe in its role as the protector of democracy. It will only do that if it stands above the politics of the day. To ensure credibility it needs to view itself as well as act in a professional manner. It does itself no credit when it puts out statements such as it did on 23rd September 2014 and used terms such as ‘thick fog of confusion created by vested interests’ and condemning the ‘holier than thou’ attitude that had been taken against the ECP. This language may reflect the feelings of the people working in the institution but public statements should not be couched in such emotive language from any professional institution. If it needs lessons, pay heed to the recent statement issued by the CIA rebutting the validity of the US report on torture conducted by the CIA during interrogations post 9/11.

The New Chief Election Commissioner should above all else take to heart the statement that is so proudly displayed on the ECP website by Quaid-e-Azam, given to civil servants in Peshawar in 1948: ‘The first thing I want to tell you is this; that you should not be influenced by any political pressure, by any political party or any individual politician.’ Once this is in place in his heart and he does his duties to the people of Pakistan, everything else will fall into place.

    Najma Minhas is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors.