Isn’t it an oxymoron? Almost every electoral exercise — whether a general election, a local body election or a bye-election — not only damaged the quality of our democracy but also the norms and ethics of society. Consider the practice of vote-buying from top (Senate) to bottom. It’s not the society but the leadership that is responsible for this. Though there are thousands of special interest groups, there is hardly any active social movement here. Even most of the opinion makers, associated with various media platforms, do criticize the elite, but are reluctant to act collectively for the cause of the masses.
Result. The elites are free of any real fear. They don’t even hesitate from violating the social contract which is the basis of any state. The state is bound to provide protection to its people against internal (injustice) and external aggression and in return citizens are expected to be loyal to the state by adhering to law and Constitution. The Constitution not only guarantees freedoms but also promises to end all forms of exploitation (Article 3), to prevent ‘concentration of means of production and wealth in few hands’ (Article 38).
Pakistan is celebrating the Golden Jubilee Year of its Constitution. There is a lot for the super elite to celebrate. As far as citizens are concerned, there is nothing to sing and dance for. Fifty years on, exploitation and injustice have gone up sharply. According to a study by PIDE University, about three dozen dynasties are in total control of our corporate world, while about 200 dynasties control 80% of our legislative bodies and governance system with the help uniformed personnel.
Despite clear separation of powers, a nexus of civil, military elites enjoy control over our institutions. Judiciary is not always independent either. The role of the election commission is pivotal as it is the custodian of the will of the people. However, with some exceptions, it has failed to protect this sacred will.
The incumbent ECP officials too have failed to act according to the spirit of Article 218 (3) of the Constitution. It orders the ECP “to organise and conduct the election and to make such arrangements as are necessary to ensure that the election is conducted honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law, and that corrupt practices are guarded against”. Examination of various elections held between 2019 and 2023 is likely to erode confidence in the ECP’s conduct. Seemingly, it lacks capacity as well as neutrality. Consider these facts.
There is enough evidence to conclude that the ruling coalition doesn’t want election to Punjab and KP assemblies to be held within the stipulated timeframe. The ECP appears siding with the government instead of acting according to the law. On 17th February, ECP filed an intra-court appeal in Lahore High Court challenging the single bench order regarding immediate announcement of the Punjab Assembly’s election date. On 16th February, the lawyer for the Punjab government informed the Supreme Court bench that CCPO Lahore Ghulam Mohammad Dogar was transferred/removed on the orders of the ECP, while the AGP said that the order was issued by the Punjab governor. The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) verified in the court that ECP approved the request of the Punjab government. Reportedly Justice Ijazul Ahsan questioned “what was the hurry? And “despite order of the Supreme Court why did he transfer him?” Remember, the law bans caretaker administrations from posting and transferring officials. In the last few weeks, the Punjab government had comprehensively reshuffled civil bureaucracy. The ECP instead of acting against the unlawful transfers and postings appear to be defending it, thereby making itself vulnerable to criticism.
Salman Akram Raja, renowned constitutional expert, on February 18th tweeted: “Dispensability of the law is being asserted at the highest levels by the governors & the election commission. You can’t flout and mock the constitution in full public view.”
Besides the above, here are some additional indicators that are damaging for ECP: 1) Postponement of Islamabad and 2nd phase of Sindh local bodies elections. 2) Delay in the announcement of results of certain bye-elections and polling stations within the required time (14 days). Just visit the ECP website. Compare the number of elections held in the last three years and the results forms available on the website. 3) Ignoring implementation of its own Strategic Plan (pillar 8) which was set to pilot EVM repeatedly in bye-elections between 2019 and 2023. It was piloted only once. 4) The NA Speaker has accepted resignation of 81 MNAs, but ECP has announced election schedule for only 33 seats. On what grounds the decision was made? 5) In Karachi unfair delimitation of local councils provided justification to MQM to boycott the local elections. 6) In ICT aborted local elections, more than 80% candidates on peasant/worker seats didn’t fulfil requirements of legal definitions of both terms. A large majority of them were likely to be businessmen, traders and real estate agents, and ROs failed to catch the grabbers of quota seats of marginalised classes. 7) Unprecedented number of candidates won local elections in Sindh without any contest. Most of them reportedly were coerced or bribed the candidates to withdraw. 8) Chapter XI of the Elections Act empowers ECP to make parties internally democratic. There is no evidence that ECP tried to achieve that. And 9) Scanning of the ECP website is likely to damage visitors’ confidence as it lacks critical information, and the quality of the available information is poor. For instance, ECP takes a couple of years to publish general election reports. The report of 2018 general election is not yet available on its website while constituency-wise election results do not contain critical information about the candidates.
There is no doubt the ECP work under immense pressure, with the CEC and other members pulled and pushed by all sides. Moreover, hiring, training, supervising and managing more than half a million election staff is a herculean task. If the ECP doesn’t insulate itself from political influence and interference, conduct of election will become even more difficult — as well as doubtful. Many countries whose population is larger than ours have been holding better elections than us. India, Brazil and Indonesia are cases in point. Interestingly all of them have shifted to EVM and have been holding better elections than us. Therefore, the CEC or its members can’t absolve themselves of poor performance and partisan behaviour.
In the coming days, the ECP is likely to face even more daunting situations — and it does not seem prepared for that. The ECP has to conduct bye-elections on 33 NA seats and elections to two provincial assemblies. It has the power to punish and reprimand wrongdoers and violators — and it must hold elections in a free and fair manner. The country needs quality democracy and good governance; and only free and fair elections can do the needful.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2023.
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