FeaturedNationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 52

Can fair elections be ensured without a level playing field?

President Arif Alvi has written a letter to the caretaker prime minister in which he has drawn his attention to the PTI’s concern over the caretaker government’s unfair treatment of the party, its leaders and workers and sought constitutional protections equally for all parties and citizens. In his letter, the President referred to the erosion of fundamental rights and a level playing field for all political parties in the run-up to the upcoming general elections.

The President said that it was of “utmost importance” that the caretaker government made efforts as a “neutral entity” while overseeing the electoral process. He said, “There is a resonance in Pakistan that for free, fair and credible elections, all political parties and leaders have the right to contest and it is up to the people to decide.” In his letter, President Alvi said that he was constitutionally “duty-bound, along with the Prime Minister and all institutions, to protect the rights of the citizens”. The President highlighted the Article 4 (right of individuals to be dealt with in accordance with law), 17 (freedom of association) and 19 (freedom of speech) of the Constitution as he urged PM Kakar, as the head of the government, to “kindly look into these issues”.

The PTI has repeatedly complained that it is being stopped from carrying out political activities and several of its leaders are detained following violence in the country on May 9. The PTI has called for free, fair, transparent conduct for the upcoming polls and demanded that a level playing field should be provided to all political parties during the process leading  to elections.

There is little doubt that the PTI’s political workers have continued to be harassed and detained, and a large number of its leaders are being held without trial, and even the women associated with it have suffered from the state’s excesses. The PTI is not the only party complaining about the lack of a level playing field leading up to the polls. The rivalry between the PML-N and the PPP has deepened as the latter has alleged that the PML-N has a hidden alliance with the current caretaker government.

The PPP has been complaining ceaselessly about being denied a level playing field. The party‘s leadership fears that the engineered ‘selection’ of another government is under way. Despite the PPP’s complaints and tell-tale evidence of the PTI’s political victimization, the ECP is yet to demonstrate that it is creating the conditions necessary to hold  free and fair elections.

In a statement, PPP Secretary General Syed Nayyar Hussain Bukhari criticised PML-N leader and former finance minister Ishaq Dar for holding the position of leader of the house in the Senate. “An alliance between the PML-N and the caretakers is obvious. With what status, Ishaq Dar is holding the office of leader of the house in the Senate. In the Senate, the leader of the house represents the Prime Minister,” Mr Bukhari said. Fingers have also been pointed at PM  Anwarul Haq Kakar’s aides — Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hassan Fawad- who are known to have close affiliation with PML-N leaders Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif. Punjab Governor Baleeghur Rehman is also from the PML-N.

PPP leader Khursheed Shah recently claimed that the caretaker set-up was an extension of the PML-N since many of its loyalists were part of the interim cabinet led by premier Anwarul Haq Kakar who had a hidden alliance with the current caretaker government.

Reacting to the barrage of criticism from the two major political parties, Information Minister Murtaza Solangi has taken umbrage at President Alvi’s letter to PM Kakar and said that the President was prioritizing his own party’s concern over others. He flatly denied that the playing field was uneven, and stated that the President’s actions seemed to be increasingly “conflicting with his constitutional role”. In turn, Solangi has not been spared and taken to task in media comments which emphasized that the caretaker set-up cannot question the President’s constitutional status and it is inappropriate for a handpicked caretaker minister to publicly take an adversarial position against him.

As the elections are drawing nearer, the gulf between the Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-N, allies in the last PDM government, is widening further. Both PPP and the beleaguered PTI feel that the PML-N is being accorded a ‘favoured nation’ treatment which will give it an unfair advantage at the hustings. In other words, they are apprehensive that the polls will be rigged to secure a win for the PML-N.

The apprehension being expressed by the PPP and PTI may be exaggerated but they are not without substance. The composition of caretaker set-ups both at the Centre and in the provinces is tilted in favour of the PML-N. PML-N leaders are behaving as if they have already won the elections. It is important for the interim government to dispel this impression not by a play upon words but by action. There are numerous complaints about transfers and postings which need to be addressed. All political parties taking part in the elections must be fully satisfied with electoral arrangements and must be made to feel that they are being given equal opportunities. Otherwise, the election results will lack credibility and legitimacy.