The defining moment for Pakistan’s election commission is here
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) released two extraordinary and somewhat explosive enquiry reports last week. The reports were about an equally extraordinary by-election for a National Assembly constituency located around Daska town of Punjab held in February this year. The by-election carried huge symbolic value in the keenly contested battleground of Punjab which is considered the stronghold of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN party and where Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI won by a razor-thin margin in the 2018 General Election and managed to form a government only with the help of a smaller but strategically important party - PML-Q. In all likelihood, Punjab province, the largest of the four provinces and which controls more than half of the National Assembly seats, will be the key battleground in the next election scheduled for 2023.
Why are the two ECP reports explosive or extraordinary? One should try to understand this in the context of the low public credibility of Pakistan’s electoral system reflected in the lowest average voter turnout of around 48% in the past eleven elections - the lowest in South Asia. By contrast, India, which inherited the same electoral system, has an average voter turnout of around 60% in seventeen previous elections. The key reason for this weak public trust in the electoral system in Pakistan is the lack of enforcement of vast constitutional powers available to the ECP in the past. ECP hardly ever took serious notice of past electoral irregularities. A case in point is the mysterious collapse of Result Transmission System (RTS) on the night of 2018 general election which raised serious questions about the integrity of election results but, despite the lapse of more than three years, no serious effort has been made to enquire into the blatant failure of the system.
In such a murky backdrop of ECP’s perceived inaction, the Daska by-election took place on February 19. Although there were incidents of firing on election day and polling had to be suspended for short durations, the process of the election continued till closing time. The real bomb-shell however, was the mysterious disappearance of 20 presiding officers along with the ballot papers. All efforts to reach them by phone or trace their whereabouts proved futile.
What makes this election even more extraordinary is the fact that the ECP, contrary to its past practices, took the bold and timely decision of not only ordering the re-poll but also suspending and transferring various district administration officials suspected of electoral wrongdoing.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
ECP had to withhold the announcement of preliminary results because the result from 20 polling stations was not received and the disappearance of presiding officers had indicated some wrongdoing in the electoral process. The PTI candidate and some government ministers reacted angrily to the ECP’s decision. When the presiding officers finally reached the returning officer the next morning, their statements and the result documents further confirmed the suspicion of an organized effort to manipulate results.
ECP decided to declare the election void and ordered re-election. The PTI candidate challenged the ECP decision before the Supreme Court and PTI ministers mounted a campaign of criticism against the election body.
What makes this election even more extraordinary is the fact that the ECP, contrary to its past practices, took the bold and timely decision of not only ordering the re-poll but also suspending and transferring various district administration officials suspected of electoral wrongdoing. The Supreme Court also upheld the decision of the ECP. The re-poll was finally held on April 1o in which the PML-N candidate easily won.
Two reports recently made public by ECP are the result of a nearly five month long investigation. It is probably the first time that such detailed enquiry reports were attempted and made public by the ECP. The misconduct of a large number of government functionaries has been established and both departmental disciplinary action and, in some cases, criminal proceedings have been recommended.
The ECP now seems to be at a defining stage. If it is successful in prosecuting identified culprits and getting them convicted, it will become a landmark in the electoral history of Pakistan and act as a deterrent against future rigging attempts.
As a result, public trust in the ECP will strengthen and hopefully, voter turnout will also improve. It is needless to say that if the ECP fails to take the investigation to its logical conclusion, public trust will further plummet.
– The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat