Confrontations between Pakistan government and election commission may lead to systemic change

Confrontations between Pakistan government and election commission may lead to systemic change

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The ongoing confrontation between the government and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is unprecedented. Opposition political parties criticized ECP in the past but this is probably the first time in the history of Pakistan that a sitting government has not only harshly criticized ECP, but also demanded the resignation of all members of the Commission. 

Recently, two federal ministers, including the spokesperson of the government, have levelled grave charges against ECP and one minister even went to the extent of suggesting that institutions like ECP should be burnt down to ashes. In another possible first, ECP has called formal explanations from the two ministers. Federal Information Minister has upped the ante by asking two members of the Election Commission to oppose the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). This is yet another unprecedented government move to seek to divide a constitutional institution.  

If ECP decides to take up the case of the ministers’ utterances, Section 10 of the Elections Act, 2017 gives ECP the same powers to punish for the contempt as are available to a high court. Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani was removed as Prime Minister after conviction for contempt of court by the Supreme Court in 2012. Some other prominent politicians were also disqualified after their conviction under the same contempt law. Convictions by ECP can, however, be appealed in Supreme Court and it is not clear whether contempt of ECP, like that of a court, can lead to disqualification. Proceedings for the contempt of ECP, if and when initiated, will also be an unprecedented act. 

ECP considers it almost impossible to procure, train staff, conduct pilot testing, create public awareness and deploy such a large number of EVMs before the next election.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

The government’s tirade against the CEC and other EC members is surprising because these officials were appointed as a result of the consultation between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition. The incumbent CEC was appointed after his name was reportedly proposed by the Prime Minister and agreed to by the opposition leader.

The first sign of government displeasure with ECP appeared when ECP opposed the government plea to hold Senate elections under open ballot without amending the constitution. When a rather ambiguous opinion of the Supreme Court was announced in March 2021, PTI interpreted that as supportive of the government plea and tried to push ECP to make the ballot papers identifiable by using technology. ECP did not oblige as it considered anything but secret ballot unconstitutional. The ECP’s position proved to be right as the subsequent detailed Supreme Court opinion unambiguously favoured the secret ballot.  

The major conflict between the PTI government and ECP took place when, in a critical National Assembly by-election in Daska (Punjab) in February 2021, drastic irregularities of the polling staff and the provincial administration came to the knowledge of ECP and, despite strong government opposition, ECP announced a re-poll and initiated an enquiry against all the accused polling staff and administration officials.

The latest differences between the government and ECP have emerged on a package of about 50 amendments to the Elections Act including the one to deploy some 400,000 Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in the next general election. ECP considers it almost impossible to procure, train staff, conduct pilot testing, create public awareness and deploy such a large number of EVMs before the next election. India had gradually deployed EVMs over a period of 22 years. ECP also finds some other government amendment proposals constitutionally or administratively problematic. 

 ECP is expected to announce decisions on some highly sensitive cases in the near future which may have implications for PTI. The foreign funding case against PTI which continues to linger since November 2014 has almost reached its logical conclusion. ECP has also reportedly completed its enquiry of irregularities committed during the Daska by-election and its findings, which may be embarrassing for the government, are expected to be announced soon. The conclusion of an enquiry into the mysterious collapse of Result Transmission System (RTS) in 2018 election is also due. Some analysts believe that the belligerent attitude of government ministers may be a part of the strategy to create the perception of partiality about ECP before a possibly damaging judgment is announced. 

Despite vast constitutional powers, ECP has generally been a pliant institution. Incumbent CEC and EC members seem to be asserting ECP authority for the first time. The current Government-ECP confrontation may be a part of the turbulent readjustment in the relationship between the two. The Indian Election Commission went through a similar adjustment when an assertive civil servant, T. N. Seshan, became Indian CEC in 1990 and completely altered the equation with the government after a noisy confrontation. The present powerful and fiercely independent Indian Election Commission is a legacy of Seshan. It is too early to say whether an independent and assertive ECP will emerge from the present noisy confrontation with the government but the trajectory appears familiar.        

- The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat    


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