ISLAMABAD: Highly regarded veteran judge Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim takes up the uphill task of supervising the forthcoming general elections, expected to be furiously fought, but his age, physical health and mental alertness is not on his side given the monumental assignment that would be subject to lots of pulls and pressures and stresses.
He will be head of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) when it could receive an order from the Supreme Court, if it convicted Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on a contempt charge, to unseat him as a member of the National Assembly.
However, the recent stand of Fakhru Bhai, as he is lovingly called, supporting the National Assembly Speaker Dr Fehmida Mirza’s ruling not to send the reference to the ECP against Yusuf Raza Gilani to depose him in the wake of the apex court’s April 26 guilty verdict for contempt did raise several eyebrows.
The simple reason was that the retired judge always vehemently emphasised that once a court judgment has been handed down it has to be implemented by all and sundry, and its non-enforcement is out of the question.
More recently, contrary to his firm stand in favour of the present independent judiciary, Fakhru Bhai demanded the resignation of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry saying that he has become controversial as the bar is deeply divided about him. This did ring alarm bells in various discerning quarters, raising doubts about his position.
Ironically, his view was in total conflict with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that proposed his name as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). He has never been on this party’s side.
The job of the CEC is extremely taxing because he has to face a lot of flak from political parties, which are aggrieved by his decisions especially on the eve of or during the elections. It is a big question mark whether Fakhru Bhai would be able to brook such strain and tension and sail through it. He will hold this office for five years contrary to the previous tenure of three years.
Although Fakhru Bhai will be the chief of the institution of the ECP, it is not an individual, the CEC, who has been exceedingly strengthened by the 20th amendment, but in fact, it is the institution that has been given all the powers opposed to the past.Now, the ECP has been armed with the power to even nominate the caretaker prime minister or provincial chief ministers under some conditions.
The ECP will exercise this authority in case the outgoing prime minister, chief ministers and leaders of opposition fail to reach consensus on caretaker federal and provincial chief executives and so do the eight-member parliamentary committees subsequently.
The 20th amendment made the ECP stronger so that the institution does not act as a helpless spectator or the handmaid of rulers in the general elections and does not remain hostage to the whims and political leanings of one individual, the CEC. The ECP was empowered in view of the apprehensions that the incumbent government will manipulate the forthcoming parliamentary polls and the processes leading to the exercise to its advantage.
The reinforced ECP now means the CEC and its four members, who are retired high court judges, one from each province. All these five slot holders, not the CEC alone, will exercise the powers of the ECP. Precisely as the CEC, an ECP member, “shall not be removed from office except in the manner prescribed in Article 209” relating to superior court judges. Thus, a fail-safe security and guarantee to the tenure of the four ECP members has been provided in the Constitution, enabling them to act without fear of being shunted out unceremoniously.
Earlier under the constitution the CEC was entrusted with holding and conducting election to the office of President and was to act as its returning officer, but now it is the ECP which would perform this function. Now, it is the ECP, not the CEC, which will appoint presiding officers to chair the meetings of the members of Parliament and provincial assemblies, when required under the constitution or law.
So in such constitutional scheme of powers of the ECP, meaning the CEC and its four members, Fakhru Bhai will not have much individual authority to exercise.
In March 1981 Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim while serving as ad hoc Judge of the Supreme Court refused to take fresh oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) introduced by General Ziaul Haq along with Justice Dorab Patel and Chief Justice Sheikh Anwarul Haq, and earned a great name in the annuls of judicial history of Pakistan.
The PCO not only negated the independence of the judiciary but also prolonged martial law by nullifying the effect of a judgment giving the military regime limited recognition.
Ebrahim has an illustrious career to recall. He served as the Sindh Governor of the first Benazir Bhutto government from April 1989 to August 1990. During his incumbency, Karachi witnessed a lot of bloodshed, which was not of his making by any permutation. At that time of bloody mayhem, he burst into tear during his television address while appealing to Karachiites to calm down. His heart always bleeds over the sorry state Pakistan is faced with.
He later became disenchanted with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and in 1996 served as law minister in the caretaker cabinet of President Farooq Leghari, following the dismissal of the Benazir Bhutto government on grave charges.
Ebrahim has to his credit the establishment of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) in Karachi in 1989 consisting of citizens in registering the First Information Report (FIR) if it is refused by police.
As Pakistan’s multiple serious problems, fueling dissensions and conflict, and in the backdrop of raging wrangle over judgments of the superior courts with the government hell-bent not to bow before them, his has been a voice of sanity, always urging tolerance, patience, perseverance and upholding of rule of law.