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July 16, 2018

Level-playing field?

Top Story

July 16, 2018

The leadership of the two major political parties, PPP and PML-N, in particular has made it known to all, without mincing words, that elections 2018 are perceived to be subjected to pre-poll rigging due to the non-availability of level playing field-- explicitly implying the 25th of July may be just an exercise to put the seal on what has already been decided to achieve desired results by the “system”. Ironically, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) though fully empowered to rectify the situation but seemingly wanting to take action in accordance with the provision of level playing field to all political parties. Provision of level playing field, being the pre-requisite for holding fair and free elections, may not be pushed to the periphery for the same reasons. Is it then ECP’s helplessness or inertia?

In view of the absolute criticality of the issue for democracy, the Elections Commission of Pakistan may be offered an unsolicited advice to immediately invite the leaders of all the political parties in a conference with a view to alley their seemingly well founded fears of “rigged elections” juxtaposed with “intimidation” flying thick and high with every passing day. Without the convening of such conference of the political leadership by the Election Commission the criticism may touch sky high prior to the convening of elections with enough potential to nudge the politicians not to accept the results especially if these are below their expectations. The likely cause or justification for their reprisal may be tackled now without loss of any more time. The likelihood of elections becoming controversial is greater if tangible steps are not taken in consultation with the political leadership. Inaction may eclipse the dark long shadows on the whole electoral process to the collective frustration of the nation.

Kind attention of the honourable chief justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan is also invited to his categorical assurances to the nation about the holding of elections on time, so important to fulfill the vital objectives of the constitution. It may be recalled that the honourable chief justice while speaking at a ceremony of SCBA held in April this year to name the auditorium of SCBA after the late Human Right activist Asma Jehangir declared amid thundering applause, “We cannot hold our posts with this filth (unconstitutional rule) on our faces and foreheads, adding, there will only be democracy and democracy and constitutional rule in this country.” On another occasion of the apex court hearing regarding distribution of government advertisements to the newspapers and electronic media, the chief justice reportedly categorically observed, ‘that fair and free elections in the country will be held and level playing field will be provided to all the political parties.

The nation heaved the much needed sigh of relief after the unequivocal assurance of the chief justice letting them off the hook of agonising nature of uncertainty regarding the holding of elections. Earlier, the statements of one brand of politicians were demanding the postponement of elections on one pretext or another. The other brand of politicians were opposing the postponement of elections insisting that elections must be held as per the constitution as any deviation from the primary law of the land may trigger cascade of ravages with poisonous impact on the body politics. The arguments for and against were big source of worry for the people of this country who were heavily tilted in favour of the constitutional democracy. The words of the chief justice were akin to ironclad guarantee those took full spectrum care of the speculations earlier making rounds time and again. The comfort level of the people after the chief justice assurance was at its zenith by any stretch of imagination.

Unfortunately, the people of Pakistan are not blessed with to remain in comfort zone for an extended period of time due to the volatility and unpredictability of the political landscape of the country. A small event may take turn enough to upset the whole arena quite in the opposite direction. Today, the situation has come to this pass that people are again in the stranglehold of uncertainty and confusion as they were prior to the unwavering assurance of the chief justice about couple of months ago. The talk of denial of level playing field to the majority of the political parties is being given prominent space in the news media that coming across somewhat convincing when studied in the context of assertions made by responsible leadership. It is difficult to search out a comment suggesting the availability of level playing field to the political parties as per accepted standards. The situation may not be left as it is to avoid the lamentable consequences of appalling proportion. There may be dire need again of chief justice taking notice of the statements of the host of politicians regarding the non- availability of level playing field to them.

The chief justice as mentioned earlier assured the nation that general elections would be held on time and level playing field would be provided to all the political parties to contest the elections. Elections are going to be held on time, undoubtedly. But the indiscriminate provision of level playing field might have hit the snags. Looking at the daily statements of the overwhelming majority of the top political leadership complaining about the non-availability of the same while the one party has been riding the tide at their expense, is indeed worrisome. The allegations of intimidation and harassment by the intelligence agencies to shift the loyalties to the party are also reported in the media quite off and on. The political leadership of PPP has even mentioned the names of the personnel in a press conference who have been pressurising the PPP candidates beyond the call of their duty. The DG (ISPR)’s recent press conference denying the allegations of interference might have not succeeded in changing the perception that continues to loom larger incrementally.

The chief justice of Pakistan or the election commissioner of Pakistan may take the stock of the whole situation to bring back the enabling environment as some time is still there for rectification to the satisfaction of the stakeholders. It may be added other factors like unannounced media censorship, permission to the members of proscribed organisations to contest elections including the timings of the court cases and investigations against the particular parties, may be further vitiating the election atmosphere. It is vividly remembered that the chief justice assured that the apex court would assist the Election Commission in all possible ways in undertaking Commission’s constitutional obligation to hold free, fair and impartial elections. They may in their wisdom decide as how to put the things in proper perspective to promote the cause of constitutional democracy in the country.

Understandably, if the present scenario is allowed to continuing, it is feared that the elections results may allegedly reflect the choice of the “system” instead of the people proving akin to exercise in futility. Without fair and free elections the continuity and consolidation of democracy may be reduced to a faint hope. The disheartening aspect of the controversial elections may be the triggering of the cycle of instability instead of stability with direct negative bearings on the nation building process. The dire need for holding of fair elections cannot be overemphasised for which indiscriminate provision of favourable condition to all contestants is vital. Chairman Bilawal Bhutto during his recent tour to Peshawar has again raised his voice against the non-availability of level playing field to his party. His repetition clearly suggests that the issue is becoming quite serious as the elections dates get closer. Other political parties like PML-N, MMA, and National Party including nationalist parties have been accusing the meddling of the state agencies in the electoral process. Now, this interference has become almost the talk of the town like common parlance. Where there is fire there is smoke. The emerging situation as obtaining is getting frankly extremely ominous. The movers and shakers at their own may mend their ways if they want not to be dragged in the dock of history.

The gagging of media is equally fraught with dangers. The media is up against and protesting over the unannounced censorship of the press and there are no signs of lifting it despite the strong protest from the civil society. The journalists representative body, PFUJ, has launched a protest movement right across the country with determination to continue it no matter how difficult circumstances may be. Their protest will not be good for the image of the country that is already bitterly bruised. The international media organisations have repeatedly expressed their solidarity with Pakistan’s journalist community.

The downside of the media censorship during the election season is bound to question the impartiality and credibility of the elections because without free media fair and transparent elections may not be possible to imagine. Quite a number of international observers will be in the country to monitor the elections and the continuation of censorship on media may surely yield red entry in the observers’ assessment book. Good sense may prevail sooner than later.

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