Towards national reconciliation: A call for meaningful dialogue, fair polls
Following clear directives from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Elections Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has, at last, announced the national election date as February 8, 2023. However, numerous challenges loom over the already belatedly declared elections.
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case filed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan – currently incarcerated on charges of disclosing state secrets and alleged financial corruption – it has come to light that the highest constitutional offices in the country have themselves breached the Constitution.
The Supreme Court has taken note of President of Pakistan Dr. Arif Alvi’s failure to fulfill his constitutional duty of announcing the exact date of the next elections within 90 days of the dissolution of the National Assembly (NA) by then-Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on August 9. Despite the constitutional mandate, President Alvi did not provide the exact date, citing the Election Commission of Pakistan’s assertion that he lacked the constitutional authority to do so. Chief Election Commissioner Sikander Sultan Raja, heading the ECP, not only declared this publicly but also refused to meet President Alvi for negotiations on the voting day.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling affirming the President’s constitutional authority to set the election date, it is evident that the ECP, especially the CEC, has violated the Constitution. With both the highest constitutional offices in breach, one might question whether, in the current scenario, the country is operating within the confines of its Constitution, owing to ignorance, fear, intimidation, or mala-fide intentions. This is a grave matter, despite the ECP finally announcing the election date after the SC direction.
Addressing the issue of elections, a crucial question arises: when the fundamental document of the state, the Constitution, has been violated to such an extent that it appears in disrepair, can elections truly serve their intended purpose? It seems unlikely. Given the willful and gross violations of the Constitution, including unprecedented breaches of fundamental rights in recent years and deep-seated animosity among political players, holding elections without fundamental reforms and Constitution repair, accompanied by an open debate among all political stakeholders, may only exacerbate the country’s problems and the people’s woes.
If the powers-that-be and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz believe that holding elections and granting the party power will automatically resolve everything, this notion is akin to hoping for the impossible. The seriousness of the constitutional breaches by the highest offices demands that the Supreme Court does not allow the violators to go unpunished, dismissing the notion of letting bygones be bygones.
While it is the constitutional right of every politician and political party to receive fair opportunities to contest and vie for governmental powers, the term ‘level playing field’ in the current Pakistani political discourse does not imply creating such a situation by suppressing a particular party; this notion is entirely based on misperception. A scenario analysis can be conducted, imagining that the PML-N somehow comes to power. Would the party have what it takes to address the massive problems of the country? The answer is likely no. Moreover, would the election results be accepted not only by the PTI and incarcerated Khan but also by other political parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)? Again, the answer is no. According to all opinion polls, including one recently held by the PML-N think tank itself, the PTI is currently the most popular party in the country. Consequently, if the PML-N, an unpopular party at the moment, were to assume power, the election results would be highly suspect and lack legitimacy. In such a situation, the PML-N would likely struggle to govern effectively, despite the ostensible good intentions of its leader, Nawaz Sharif.
For the next elections to be meaningful, providing equal opportunities to all political parties and leaders to contest is essential. However, even more critical is the need for national reconciliation among all political forces, including the security establishment and the judiciary. These institutions and actors must come together and pledge to adhere to the Constitution, ensuring people’s rights and well-being, and peacefully striving for the attainment of political and governmental powers.
Given his role as the head of state, the President of Pakistan must take the lead and send an open message to all sides to come to the negotiation table. Acknowledging his own violation of the Constitution by failing to provide an exact date for holding elections within 90 days of the dissolution of the previous National Assembly, President Alvi should announce an exact date and time frame for the national reconciliation process. This would be a step towards making amends for breaching the Constitution. President Alvi should lead the reconciliation process with an unequivocal stance that those who do not participate will have no right to contest elections or hold public offices. As the symbol of the federation and the supreme commander of the armed forces, President Alvi’s initiative, displaying statesmanship and courage, could garner support from all sides, as it concerns the survival of the state.
The recent overture by PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif to bring all political players, including the PTI, to the negotiation table is indeed welcome, and hopefully, it will not be used as a smokescreen by the party to gain power. However, true and meaningful reconciliation can be initiated by President Alvi with the support of civil society, urging political players to engage in a genuine reconciliation process before the next elections.