Poll credibility – 21 Jan 2023

THE first major test of the current Election Commission, in fact the entire nation, is less than 90 days away. With the dissolution of the provincial assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the countdown has begun on the constitutional requirement of electing new assemblies.

While the consultations for the two provincial caretaker governments and the election schedule continue, the ECP was finally able to hold the second phase of local government elections in Sindh on Jan 15. This phase included the highly sensitive Karachi and Hyderabad divisions where LG polls were overdue by two and a half years and kept on being postponed.

Even for the latest polling date, there were repeated demands for postponement initially from the MQM-P and later the PPPled Sindh government. The MQM-P had some genuine complaints about the asymmetrical size of the union committees but ECP and the courts weren`t convinced to further defer the polls. Hence, a bitter MQM-P opted to boycott the election by lodging strong complaints against the Sindh government and ECP.

Contrary to predictions of violence on polling day, it was a largely peaceful day and polling was orderly. The compilation and consolidation of results by the presiding and returning officers, however, attracted loud protests especially by JI and PTI. Strong protests are not necessarily a manifestation of the lack of integrity of elections, as we discovered during the noisy PTI dharna in 2014 followed by the verdict of the judicial commission headed by the then chief justice that the 2013 poll results were a fair manifestation of public opinion, thus rejecting PTI`s allegation.

However, the commission did point out several weaknesses in the electoral system for the ECP and other stakeholders to address.

The controversy over the Karachi LG poll has erupted quite close to the upcoming general elections and if not properly and efficiently handled, may adversely affect the credibility of the current ECP.

Despite the baggage of rigging in several past elections, largely by powerful institutions, the ECP has lately done some solid repair work to fix its credibility since the induction of the new CEC and four other members. Taking a position in support of ballot secrecy in the 2021 Senate election in accordance with the Constitution, despite apparently strong pressure from within and outside the apex court, was a rare demonstration of independence.

Declaring the Dasl(a by-election void in February 2021, identifying and prosecuting the culprits among the senior ranks ofthe civil administration responsible for one of the most blatant efforts to steal an election in recent times, securing the court`s endorsement for holding re-election which further confirmed the earlier ECP finding of manipulation of the byelection, are some of the landmark achievements of the ECP which had arguably been under-appreciated.

Giving a well-researched fact-finding report in the PTI prohibited funding case after a delay of over eight years by previous ECPs was also a significant achievement. The successful conduct of 20 Punjab Assembly by-elections in a highly charged environment in July 2022 and withstanding multiple pressures as most results went against the PML-N the ruling party at the centre and in Punjab at that time added to the ECP`s credibility as did the successful conduct of LG polls in Balochistan, KP and Sindh, despite multiple litigation and foot-dragging by the provincial governments. The repeated postponement of the LG elections in Punjaband Islamabad, despite the ECP`s tenacity, is, however, a sad chapter in our electoral history.

With unprecedented levels of political polarisation and strong but largely unjustified criticism of the ECPby one of the biggest political parties, the PTI, the conduct of the next two sets of general elections will be a huge challenge.

Meticulous regulation of political finances, guarding election day operations against the undue political influence of recently dissolved provincial governments through the polling staff largely consisting of provincial government employees, maintaining an even-handed and dispassionate approach despite provocations by one party or the other, quick disposal of objections raised during the Sindh by-elections, and last but not the least, upgrading its public communication are some of the huge challenges confronting the ECP. It is not just the ECP but all stakeholders, including the governments both political and caretaker -law-enforcement agencies and all political parties who have to fulfil their share of the responsibility if the next election has to be made credible.• The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

president@pildat.org Twitter: @ABMPildat

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