Intensifying govt-ECP clash: How will it end?

September 21, 2021

ISLAMABAD: What will be the outcome of the current confrontation between the Election Commission of Pakistan and the federal government?An example from the recent past might be relevant to recall...

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ISLAMABAD: What will be the outcome of the current confrontation between the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the federal government?

An example from the recent past might be relevant to recall keeping in view the ongoing conflict. Nine years ago, the widely admired Fakhruddin G Ebrahim stood down as the chief election commissioner (CEC) after finding the harangues against him by politicians too vicious to bear. He was not the kind of person who would cling to any official position amid attacks and controversies. He lived an honourable life whether he served as the Sindh governor, a judge of the Supreme Court or a practicing lawyer.

When he was sworn in as the CEC in July 2012, there was not a single voice in Pakistan that took even a slight exception to his selection. This was because of his credentials. But he too soon fell prey to partisan and opportunistic politics.

He could serve for only one year, and when he resigned, he was yet to exhaust his four-year tenure. He was the only CEC in Pakistan’s history who chose to bow out on his own, preferring to resign rather than becoming a punching bag of politicians. Ebrahim bowed out after supervising the 2013 general elections. Those who cherish the independence of institutions were anguished over his unfortunate exit.

Although Fakhruddin G Ebrahim had been picked by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) prime minister and the PML-N’s leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had rejoiced over his nomination without reservations. But its support proved to be short-lived as it came on the forefront in attacking him for not delivering according to its expectations and hopes.

When Sikandar Sultan Raja was chosen by Prime Minister Imran Khan for the top constitutional office, he had been quickly approved not by only by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), but all the other major opposition parties including the PPP and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), which praised the decision and the man assigned the job. All these parties had informally agreed on his name prior to its selection by the premier.

Whether this is his qualification or disqualification, Sikandar Sultan is the son-in-law of Saeed Mehdi, the former principal secretary of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Some PTI leaders, while scoffing at the CEC now, have referred to this relationship to portray Sikandar Sultan as the PML-N’s man.

However, a fact known to informed people is that Saeed Mehdi has always maintained a close contact with people from across the political spectrum, including meetings with Prime Minister Imran Khan.

His son, Amer Ahmad Ali, who simultaneously holds the slots of the Islamabad chief commissioner and Capital Development Authority (CDA) chairman, is among the top bureaucrats in present dispensation.

The emergence of a consensus on the CEC was no less than a miracle amid a total lack of communications between the government and opposition since August 2018. In this case, the two sides proved that they could reach an agreement when they wanted to and when they believed that the decision would be mutually beneficial.

Sikandar Sultan’s first year as the CEC passed without any political row or commotion from the government or any political party over his actions. However, the decision taken by the ECP annulling the Daska by-election after the mysterious disappearance of nearly two dozen presiding officers along with the ballot boxes, triggered the tension between the government and the CEC.

The strained relations went from bad to worse with the passage of time. The Senate election, especially Yusuf Raza Gilani’s victory from the Islamabad seat, the ECP’s reply in a government reference filed in the Supreme Court rejecting the open ballot in place of a secret vote in the Senate polls, the dismissal of 45 out of 72 amendments in the Elections Act 2017, and 28 objections to electronic voting machines (EVMs) and i-voting pushed the conflict to an all-time high.

Federal Minister Azam Swati’s outburst in the Senate standing committee during its consideration of these amendments was an illustration of the government’s indignation over the CEC’s actions, decisions and responses, which had not been kept under wraps. Swati had gone to the extent of suggesting the burning down of institutions like the ECP.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had later described the CEC as a mouthpiece and a tool of the small opposition parties. On Sunday, he attempted to pile up further pressure on Sikandar Sultan when he said: I ask the two ECP members to come forward, detach themselves from the CEC’s decision and review them; if Sikandar Sultan wants to contribute to politics, he should resign and join it; we are still showing restraint and tolerating the CEC; an apt example of being ignorant of technology is the ECP reply to the Nadra chairman about i-voting etc.

The prevailing tension aggravated further after the ECP issued notices to the two ministers, including Fawad Chaudhry, for their tirade against it and the CEC. The ECP has also taken note of a senator’s claim that President Arif Alvi during a meeting in his office kept eagerly asking about the resignations of its top guns, meaning the CEC and ECP members. The obvious objective of this campaign is to demoralise Sikandar Sultan and force him to call it a day. The principle being followed is: my way or the highway.

While efforts are being made to get the CEC out of office, he is being backed by all the political parties. Neither the government nor any other authority can sack the CEC or any ECP member. They can be removed only through a constitutional mechanism that is applicable to the ouster of superior court judges. The Supreme Judicial Council has to be ultimately involved for this purpose.

No amount of pressure-- which has been applied since the start of the current year-- put on the CEC publicly has worked so far. Sikandar Sultan has not been bent or forced out of office. He is taking decisions that are openly disapproved and denounced by the government. The current ECP looks and acts like a different entity from its predecessors. The thought currently haunting the government is that Sikandar Sultan will supervise the next, closely fought general elections in 2023.

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