NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 4

Govt-ECO on collision course

The political situation in Pakistan has once again become quite tense as the federal government has taken the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan to task when he pointed out legal and technical issues in the government-initiated electoral reforms. On the other hand, the opposition alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), and its component parties are trying to renew their fledgling movement as apparently serious differences within the key opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have resurfaced.

The political situation in the country has become bitter as federal ministers including Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, Minister for Science and Technology Senator Shibli Faraz and Minister for Railways Azam Swati have publicly accused the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan, Sikander Sultan Raja, of becoming a hurdle to the government efforts to bring about reforms in the electoral rules and procedures. The government claims that the existing electoral laws, procedures and processes have a lot of lacunae due to which every national election becomes controversial. Therefore, there is a need to reform it, so that there is wider acceptability of election results by all political parties and other stakeholders, it argues.

In this regard, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has been making efforts and wants to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs), so that any potential electoral fraud could be addressed by making use of technology. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has observed serious problems in the use of EVMs and other government-initiated electoral reforms. Upon this, the government has accused Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan Sikander Sultan Raja of hobnobbing with the opposition parties, all of which, except the Jamaat-e-Islami, have rejected the government’s initiatives to introduce electoral reforms, particularly EVMs. It has created a tense situation in the corridors of power as the ECP has issued notices to summon the federal ministers who accused the Chief Election Commissioner of creating hurdles in the way of electoral reforms. The ministers have pooh-poohed the ECP notices and said they won’t appear before it. In response, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry asked the members of the ECP to rise against the Chief Election Commissioner. If the issue is not managed, it could escalate and result in serious constitutional and legal problems. The ECP is a constitutional body and has extensive powers to summon anyone including members of the federal government to ensure free and fair elections and question any measures that have been taken or to be taken in this regard.

However, the federal government is also a constitutional entity and has extensive administrative powers. Moreover, it has every right to introduce legislation on any aspect of social, political and economic life, including electoral reforms. So, at least the ECP cannot prevent the government from making legislation on elections. Therefore, it cannot stop the government from introducing specific procedures and processes for elections. The ECP has the option to refer any initiative of the government to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which has the authority of judicial review under the Constitution to ascertain the constitutionality of any law. Logically, the Supreme Court would play its role when two constitutional bodies are at daggers drawn. The bickering between the ECP and the federal government is both sordid and wholesome for the political culture and system of the country. It is sordid in the sense that the two important constitutional bodies are fighting each other in public, sending a negative message to the public and media regarding the immaturity of the institutions. One thinks the ECP and the federal government should have dealt with the situation in a better way and there was no need to bring the issue to the public domain. Representatives of both institutions should have met and even can meet each other now and discuss the issue of electoral reforms and EVMs threadbare and then take a final decision on them amicably. Ideally and constitutionally, all state institutions should work together for greater social cohesion and development. If the intention of both institutions is good, then there is no question that they won’t be able to reach a consensus.

As far as EVMs are concerned, there shall be no problem in making use of them for both ruling and opposition parties. EVMs are driven by technology and they are far better in neutralizing human proclivities of subjectivity and potential resort to unfair means, whether in elections or in any other social or political activity. The electoral history of Pakistan suggests that the losing side(s) always accused the winning parties of fraud, particularly in connivance with powers that be. There is no doubt that there has been large-scale illegalities, irregularities and even fraud in national elections in Pakistan but all stakeholders, whether the political parties, government and above all the establishment, have been involved in them. A key reason for all this has been the negligible use of technology during the electoral processes, particularly voting. There have been accusations from all sides of pre-poll and polling day rigging in elections. Although pre-poll rigging is a complex phenomenon to be addressed, polling day rigging and fraud could best be controlled by resorting to technology, whether it is Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), satellites, drones or above all EVMs. In all industrially developed and well-established democracies, like the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France and even our neighbouring India, EVMs have been in use for quite some time now. These states have used EVMs for their efficiency and effectiveness to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. Therefore, the opposition parties and the ECP must not have any problem in the commissioning of EVMs during the electoral process. One thinks keeping in view the poor three- year performance of the PTI government, if EVMs are used the opposition parties would get maximum advantage out of it.

The revival of the PDM as an effective opposition alliance against the government at a time when the latter has completely failed to control inflation in the country, leaving most citizens economically and financially reeling, is quite important. The PDM and its key component, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) head Fazlur Rahman, have re-invited the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to rejoin the alliance and there are chances that the latter may do so. The key reason is that some powerful quarters have indicated to the PPP to mend fences with the PDM. It is not clear yet but it seems that all opposition groups would come together to push for new elections and the federal government may in response also hold elections around six months to one year before its five-year constitutional tenure.