The shocking Senate upset appears to have sent the government into a tizzy, though the beleaguered prime minister stays put as the opposition turns up the heat on the government amid rising political temperatures in the country.
Imran Khan on Thursday called into question the neutrality of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) which, he claimed, eroded democracy by its failure to curb corrupt practices in Wednesday’s election to the upper house of parliament.
In a sharp and unusual rejoinder, the poll supervisory body on Friday dismissed as “unacceptable” the government’s “concerns” saying it “won’t buckle under pressure”. The ECP’s chutzpah is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history. It, however, didn’t go down well with the government.
Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, the government’s nominee for the Senate general seat for Islamabad, was outvoted by Yousaf Raza Gilani, the candidate of the joint opposition for the same seat, despite the clear numerical superiority of the treasury in the house. And this shows the government was ditched by own MPs, triggering suspicion they might have been offered cash by the opposition in return for their votes.
The prime minister pointed the accusatory finger at the ECP saying the corrupt practices took place right under its nose as it disregarded the government’s concerns on the secret ballot as the mode of Senate elections which, it believes, breeds corruption.
“It is shocking that under the same staff in the same election on the same day, [what they won] is acceptable and [what they lost] is unacceptable,” the ECP stated in a public statement. It was referring to the victory of PTI’s Fauzia Arshad on a woman seat for the federal capital against PML-N’s Farzana Kausar.
“The post-election responses we received through the media are disheartening, especially what a few federal cabinet members and specifically what the honourable prime minister of Pakistan said in his yesterday’s address,” it added.
“The ECP rejects the remarks and the displeasure,” it said. “The whole nation witnessed the expression of democracy, independent elections, and secret voting carried out in line with the Constitution."
“Anyone with an objection on the directions or decisions of the commission should take a constitutional course, and let the authority operate independently... We are not under any pressure neither we will accept any,” the poll supervisory body said.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that the Senate elections must be held under a secret ballot, effectively nullifying the government move to require they be held through open ballot.
The ECP wondered as to why no step had been taken by the government to have its concerns on secret ballot endorsed by parliament. “The ECP does not legislate, rather it safeguards the law,” it said. “Such criticism reflects a weakness of the institutions, not of the electoral authority.”
The poll supervisory body observed that every political party and individual should have the spirit to accept defeat and, if there is any disagreement, then [one] may furnish an argument with evidences. “Do not resort to mudslinging at the national institutions.”
“The Election Commission is a constitutional and independent institution and it has to follow the principles of the Constitution and the law, which set its standard,” it added. “The ECP listens to everyone’s concerns but it has to make the decisions as per the law and the Constitution.”
The unprecedented snub to the country’s chief executive drew a sharp rebuke from the government. “The prime minister said the ECP was unable to ensure transparency in the Senate elections. It is not something to be ‘displeased’ with; it is rather something to be ‘embarrassed’ about,” the minister for science and technology said at a presser where he was flanked by other cabinet colleagues.
“Institutions demonstrate their impartiality with their actions, not through press statements,” said Fawad Chaudhry. He added that it was “inappropriate” for a constitutional institution to publicly issue a rejoinder to the prime minister.
Fawad said Prime Minister Imran Khan has always championed the cause of independent and impartial institutions. He wondered that the ECP, in its statement, has asked for evidence of rigging even though video and audio evidence already exists. He was referring to a video clip and an audio recording of opposition members that surfaced before the Senate elections.
“In the audio recording, Sindh minister Nasir Shah spoke about exchange of Rs120 million for votes, while Maryam conceded in her speech that the ticket was sold. Ali Musa Gilani's video also surfaced,” Fawad said.
He wondered that PTI’s candidate for the second Islamabad polled votes commensurate with the numerical strength of the party in the house, while Hafeez Sheikh didn’t.
“Winning one election and losing the other is in itself evidence of rigging,” he added. “I hope the ECP will review its stance as doing so is in the country’s interest. The government supports the commission [in doing so].”
He also took exception to the conduct of the returning officer during the Senate election. The returning officer stood up to greet opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif and PML-N’s Ayaz Sadiq, who is also former speaker of the National Assembly. However, he didn’t show same respect to PM Imran Khan and incumbent National Assembly speaker Asad Qaiser.
Speaking alongside him, Information Minister Shibli Faraz blamed the PPP and the PML-N for turning Pakistan’s culture into a ‘culture of money-making’. “Corruption and use of money [for personal gains] have seeped into the entire society,” he said, adding that the two parties have damaged Pakistan's ethical and moral standards.