In this season of note and letters, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja has in separate letters to National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervez Ashraf and Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani has asked parliament to pass legislation empowering it to announce a date for the general elections. It is not without merit for the body that is supposed to be conducting the actual exercise of the elections to reiterate that in order for it to do its job it needs help and support. Without that, how would the ECP be able to ensure that the standards of honesty, justness, and fairness – as provided in Article 218(2) of the constitution – are met? Part of the ongoing debate concerning elections in Punjab has been whether the SC could provide such detailed instructions regarding the how and when of elections. The ECP obviously feels its jurisdiction is being encroached upon. While legal opinion is still divided on this issue, the ECP has stated that under the constitution, it is the sole arbiter to decide whether conducive circumstances exist to conduct elections or not. This may have been prompted by the Supreme Court’s decision of announcing elections in Punjab on May 14 and giving a schedule of the elections, after which the ECP’s role seemed somewhat redundant – though there has been commentary that the schedule of any election is the ECP’s jurisdiction. And now with an open and public split within the judiciary on whether the SC decision was 3:2 or 4:3, the court’s decision too has become open to debate. In this highly charged environment, a letter by a constitutional body that says it feels its power has been eroded cannot just be wished away.
At the heart of it all is the question Pakistan has struggled with for decades: the thin red line between institutional juridictions. For too many years has the country seen institutions arrogating to themselves the right to speak where they have either no expertise or no authority. The ECP has also pointed to the role of the president in appointing a date for polls in the case of dissolution of an assembly, and has said that such a step is not supported by any constitutional provision. While this too can be debated endlessly by constitutional lawyers, the fact is that the ECP’s letter raises questions that if left unanswered will only make things murkier. For example, the mention of the Daska byelection is noteworthy. A constitutional body responsible for holding elections feeling powerless hardly inspires confidence in the electoral process.
It must be reiterated though that none of this means that the constitutionally mandated limit of 90 days for elections can be set aside. What it does mean is that reading new roles into the constitution only takes away from the spirit of Pakistan’s guiding legal document. There is no doubt that the elections should take place within 90 days as stipulated by the constitution but this does not mean that the constitution is reinterpreted to give new roles to those who did not have any mandate in this regard. It also does not mean that the ECP can be willfully threatened every time any party feels its point of view is not being adhered to 100 per cent. The threats to the members of the ECP by PTI leaders over the past few months are a matter of public record. No political party or person can be allowed to intimidate or harass ECP members into doing their bidding. The ECP should have full authority to conduct polls but without any pressure or threats. It is important for the ECP members to have a safe and conducive environment to hold elections without any external interference and intimidation. It is also important for the ECP to get the funds it needs to conduct elections. What is direly needed now is some closure to this chapter in our political history. For that an intra-and-inter-institutional dialogue may be needed to clear away cobwebs, doubts, and misgivings. For the sake of our collective future, it is time for every institutional stakeholder in the country to take a step back and learn to understand constitutional powers and limits both.