The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has approved a new code of conduct for elections in the country, following a Supreme Court order earlier this month. On the whole, the code of conduct is unobjectionable but its true value is dependent on intent and implementation. One of the most important reforms brought about by the changes in electioneering rules is the strict upper limit of Rs1.5 million that each candidate can spend on campaigning. This is to be monitored by a returning officer, who has to be given a weekly record of expenses by the candidate. As we all know, candidates to the provincial and national assemblies spend many times that amount on campaigning and expecting them to restrict their spending to Rs1.5 million is a tad too optimistic. The law will make it harder for them to spend additional money, as the ECP will be keeping an eye on all candidates.
The ECP has also tried to tackle the problem of political parties, who simply bus in thousands of poor people to vote for them by offering them some money. This has been done by banning candidates and political parties from using vehicles to bring voters to the polls. This reform should be easier to implement so long as the ECP has the manpower to have its people posted at all polling stations to ensure that the rules are being followed. Bans on wall-chalking and the display of party flags will be harder to enforce since candidates can claim that it is their supporters who are responsible for these acts.
The ultimate test of this code of conduct will be the fairness with which it is implemented. The ECP is supposed to be a non-partisan body but has historically sided with whichever party has appointed the chief election commissioner. With by-elections to be held in Yousaf Raza Gilani’s constituency next month, we will be able to see this new code of conduct in action in the run-up to the next general elections. An ECP that is not scrupulously fair will ensure that the reforms are not worth the paper they are written on.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2012.
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