FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 8

Polls should be free of faintest shadow of doubt, dispute

A wide spectrum of opinion in the country has increasingly raised questions about the fairness of the current electoral process. There have been persistent complaints about the lack of a level playing field from various parties, including the PPP, PTI and MQM. Another point raised by the critics is the unrelenting crackdown against PTI leaders and workers and harassment of its candidates and snatching of nomination papers. According to political observers, an effort is palpably being made to keep the PTI out of the electoral race. This has led to widespread criticism of the pre-poll process.

The latest to voice concern on this issue is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan which has said that there is little chance of free and fair parliamentary elections in the country next month because of “pre-poll rigging.” It has also expressed concern over the authorities concerned rejecting the candidacies of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and most other members of his party.

At a news conference in Islamabad last week, the co-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said other political parties have been subjected to strong-arm tactics to varying degrees to prevent them from taking part in the elections. To quote her, “At this point, there is little evidence to show that the upcoming elections will be free, fair or credible.” She said that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party was “being dismembered in a systematic manner” and that the rejection of nomination papers for most of its candidates raised questions about the impartiality of the Election Commission of Pakistan.

A day after the apex court delivered its verdict about the timely holding of the general elections on February 8, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) issued separate statements underlining their concern over discrepancies in the electoral process. They called for resolution of the “mounting discrepancies” in election procedures, delimitations, and seat allocations before the general elections.

Highlighting the need for providing a level playing field and equal opportunities to all stakeholders, the SCBA noted that transparency and fairness are integral to the electoral process to win public trust. However, it said, rising discrepancies in the electoral process ahead of elections had raised valid doubts about the competence of the Election Commission. These discrepancies must be addressed effectively to safeguard both the democratic process and national resources.  Reportedly, the PBC will soon convene an all Pakistan representatives’ convention to formulate and announce a line of action and date for a lawyers’ movement in consultation with SCBA.

On the other hand, the Sindh High Court Bar Association (SHCBA) and the Punjab Bar Council (PbBC) have also expressed their reservations over the poll procedure and the conduct of Chief Election Commissioner. According to a press statement, SCBA President Shahzad Shaukat and Secretary Syed Ali Imran pinpointed “mounting discrepancies in election procedures, delimitations and seat allocation”. Farhatullah Babar, a veteran human rights leader, has also said that the Election Commission’s decisions keeping Imran Khan and other PTI members off the ballot amounted to “apparent pre-poll rigging.”

No doubt, elections are the cornerstone of the democratic process and must be held on time. But mere adherence to election timelines without removing distortions in the electoral process will undermine stability rather than contribute to it. It goes without saying that the country’s main parties would not accept the outcome of a deeply flawed electoral process, and a disputed vote would create further instability in the country – a phenomenon we have witnessed in the past.

If election results prove controversial, the next government will be on a weak footing and will be unable to deal with the multiple challenges the country is confronted with. Pakistan faces an existential threat today and needs a freely and fairly chosen strong representative government to deal with it. The country needs political stability and civic harmony and not endless tension and polarisation. We need to promote a sound democratic culture which alone can ensure continuity, peace and a spirit of co-existence among all stakeholders.

If all parties representing various groups and sections of the population are not afforded an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process, it will create heart-burning and frustration undermining civil peace and order. This onerous task is the responsibility of the Election Commission which, in order to maintain its credibility, must quickly address the grievances brought to its notice. It is not yet too late for the EC to take corrective measures and restore its credibility in the public eye. The basic objective is not merely to hold polls but to do so beyond the faintest shadow of doubt and dispute.