ECP: the sleeping giant?

ECP: the sleeping giant?

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The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has generally been criticized over its perceived or real inability to hold credible elections. The results of the last two general elections are bitterly contested till even today. PTI Chairman Imran Khan had refused to accept the 2013 election result and now the PMLN, PPP, and rest of the opposition have rejected the result of the 2018 General Election.

Several reasons may account for this lack of trust in election results but the reluctance, or rather inability, of ECP to assert its authority and to use the sweeping powers available to it under the Constitution and Elections Act, 2017, is probably the greatest impediment to establishing its credibility.

ECP may be regarded as a powerful election management body as far as the powers guaranteed in the constitution are concerned. This was, however, not always the case. The Election Commission was not even a permanent institution before the 18th Constitutional Amendment was passed in 2010. Serving High Court judges used to be part-time Commission members who would travel from their respective seats of the provincial high courts to Islamabad to attend commission meetings. For the rest of the time, they performed their normal functions as High Court judges.

The Election Commission has gradually gained strength. The 18th constitutional amendment considerably strengthened the independence of the Commission when it made the appointment of the chief election commissioner and other four members subject to a bipartisan process involving Leader of the Opposition and a parliamentary committee consisting of equal representatives from the treasury and opposition benches. This amendment made ECP more independent than even its Indian counterpart because India has not yet been able to pass a law to appoint its election commissioners through a bi-partisan process.

Another major improvement in the quality of Pakistani election commissioners was made possible through the 22nd Constitutional amendment in 2016 when election commissioners’ qualifications were broadened to include former civil servants and technocrats in addition to former judges. This amendment is, in particular, significant because former civil servants are generally better equipped with administrative skills which are the key requirement for an election commissioner. Despite these gradual improvements in the legal framework over the years, public trust in the ECP remained shaky until recently.

Some even think that ECP is experiencing a transformation reminiscent of a submissive Indian Election Commission in 1990 when a strong-willed civil servant, T. N. Seshan, was appointed chief election commissioner of India and the electoral landscape of India was irreversibly changed

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

A month ago, during a Supreme Court hearing on the presidential reference about secret ballot in the Senate Election, the Attorney General commented that ECP was a “sleeping giant which needs to wake up.” It was as though ECP was waiting for this comment, because, soon thereafter, a series of actions by the Commission did show that the giant was really trying to  wake up!

During the hearing of the presidential reference, the election commissioners took a clear and solid stand that the Senate Election, contrary to the Prime Minister and his government’s opinion, has to be held through secret ballot as provided in the constitution. This was a clean departure from the past when ECP seldom took a bold position or withstood the government’s pressure.

ECP took another timely and bold decision when it declared a National Assembly by-election in Sialkot void after election-day violence and the disappearance of 20 presiding officers for some 14 hours. ECP also directed that some district bureaucrats be suspended and summoned the powerful provincial chief secretary and inspector general police to explain their negligence. Earlier, a bold press release by the commission had publicly blamed the district and provincial administration for the election fiasco.

A few days later, ECP refused to oblige the ruling PTI ministers who were demanding to make the Senate election ballots identifiable in the light of the vague Supreme Court opinion on the presidential reference.

A week ago, ECP issued a tough rejoinder when Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly criticized ECP for not entertaining his ministers’ plea.

All these ECP actions were hard to imagine even a month ago. Some even think that ECP is experiencing a transformation reminiscent of a submissive Indian Election Commission in 1990 when a strong-willed civil servant, T. N. Seshan, was appointed chief election commissioner of India and the electoral landscape of India was irreversibly changed.

Has the sleeping giant really woken up? The next few weeks will be crucial to determine this.

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.

Twitter: @ABMPildat

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