ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has given a unique, unheard of proposal to the electoral reforms committee that the Returning Officers (ROs) should also be taken from the Pakistan army and other defence forces for the next general elections.
The PTI perhaps doesn't know that the personnel of the armed forces were never assigned this kind of role even in the parliamentary polls organized during successive martial law governments.
This was the case in the 1985 non-party elections held when General Ziaul Haq ruled as well as the 2002 polls when General Pervez Musharraf was in the driving seat. Both electoral processes were massively manipulated to get the king’s men elected. The civilian officials had worked as ROs and district ROs.
However, the army troops had provided the elaborate security cover not only in these polls but several other subsequent elections and by-polls including those held during the tenure of the present government. They were engaged on the demands of the political parties, which always felt that the elections would be fair and free in the presence of troops. But it is a fact that the results of the by-elections were universally accepted by all political players for the mere fact that the army staffers were deployed.
While submitting its proposals to the reforms committee, the PTI suggested that ROs could be taken from the army. The ROs can be taken from all services, including the defence forces, it recommended in writing. It also proposed that the ROs should be of good repute and should not be less than Grade 19.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) representative in the committee Syed Naveed Qamar took a serious exception to the PTI’s introduction of new proposals especially the one suggesting that the ROs be selected from within the army. “The proposal is ridiculous. It never happened even during military rule,” he has been quoted as having stated.
While Naveed Qamar quickly gave his response on this proposal, and rightly so, the PTI’s suggestion is unlikely to win support of even a single party represented in the electoral reforms committee. This and other proposals having been put before the body now are unnecessarily delaying a consensus on the reforms package, which is direly needed. Already, its finalization has faced inordinate delay.
For years, the officers of the subordinate judiciary performed the duties as the DROs and ROs, but after the announcement of the 2009 national judicial policy by the former Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, this practice was dispensed with. Among others, a fundamental reason behind such discontinuation was the unparalleled attack on the subordinate judiciary by the PTI which accused it of manipulation and engineering the 2013 general elections. At one stage, Iftikhar Chaudhry had issued a contempt notice to PTI Chairman Imran Khan, who got himself disentangled only by going back on his allegation.
It is no secret that the army has a full plate because of its comprehensive involvement in the nationwide operation Ruddul Fasaad against terrorists. There is no timeframe nor can it be when the campaign will end due to its nature.
The ongoing national housing and population census was delayed for months during the incumbency of Raheel Sharif as the army chief because the military had then said that it was not in a position to spare nearly 250,000 troops due to the operation Zarb-e-Azb. However, General Qamar Javed Bajwa decided to allocate the required personnel for the exercise considering it as a national duty.
In the wake of the judicial policy, no judicial official had been appointed as DRO or RO. Instead, the officials belonging to the civil bureaucracy working in the districts performed these duties.
However, on the special repeated request of the then Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, Iftikhar Chaudhry had given one-time exemption allowing the lower judiciary to perform election duties as DROs and ROs in the 2013 polls. But unfortunately, this prompted former President and PPP chief Asif Ali Zardari to repetitively charge later that the 2013 polls were of “ROs elections”, meaning that they were rigged by these officers.
It is always the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to deploy troops to maintain law and order during elections. The army officers and soldiers can’t perform this duty on their own. A request is made by the ECP to the effect. The ECP generally reacts to the demands of political parties to assuage their apprehensions or it genuinely comes to the conclusion that the troops are needed in a certain area because of the peculiar law and order situation there.
Under article 220 of the Constitution, it shall be the duty of all federal and provincial executive authorities to assist the ECP and the CEC in the discharge of their functions.