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February 23, 2021

Real test of Raja

National

February 23, 2021

By Umar Cheema

ISLAMABAD: Sikandar Sultan Raja was the Chief Secretary of Azad Jammu & Kashmir when general elections were held there in 2016. Mian Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister of Pakistan. Some of his cabinet members were stopped at Kohala Bridge as they were about to enter AJK for the election campaign. They were in the official vehicles and the use of them was in the contravention of election code.

The CS said they couldn’t use these cars inside AJK during elections and finally he prevailed. Nobody reacted probably because the ministers knew him well and more so because they didn’t have a good experience during the elections of Gilgit-Baltistan in 2015. Back then, Raja was the Chief Secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan. Barjees Tahir, then minister for AJK and GB, wanted the CS to accompany him in public gatherings; Raja refused point blank. Doing that, he said, would mean that government machinery was part of the campaign. As tension grew, he requested he should be posted out and the government happily accepted that.

Raja is now the Chief Election Commissioner and the moment has come to judge him again. Those who know him can vouch for his integrity. He goes by the rules, no matter they go against the rulers. During his tenure as Secretary Petroleum, his relationship with Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, then his in-charge minister, was uneasy and culminated at his becoming OSD. But that doesn’t mean he has any personal issues with PML-N; rather his critics portray him as a PML-N guy. This is what PTI’s Barrister Sultan alleged him of after defeat in 2016’s AJK election. In fact, he is nobody’s guy, according to people who know him.

After assuming the charge of CEC, he has been taking stand when required and without making efforts to be in the headlines. There was a suggestion at one point that he should issue a denial against the allegation levelled by the opposition that 2018’s elections were rigged. He refused to do that as he couldn’t say on behalf of the election he didn’t conduct, according to an ECP official. On the secret balloting issue, he plainly told the Supreme Court of Pakistan that abolishing this practice would be in violation of the Constitution of Pakistan. Then, there was a suggestion that by-elections shouldn't be held before the Senate polls; he refused to take the bait.

On the kidnapping of polling staff in NA-75 by-elections, the ECP under his leadership reacted in a way which has no precedent. The press release it issued is a damning indictment against the government and other stakeholders. The ECP, it has been learnt, is in the receipt of information about the identity of kidnappers who executed the entire operation and they are not from the special branch of Police.

While the reaction of ECP on the kidnapping of election staff has proved that it is no more a toothless institution, this will not have a far reaching impact if the matter is inconsequentially concluded. How will the election authorities resolve this matter remains to be seen. Today’s (Tuesday) meeting of the ECP is very crucial in this regard. While the opposition has demanded fresh elections in the entire NA-75, this is unlikely to happen. An alternative option is to order the forensic audit of the voting record of the polling stations as there were also allegations of stuffing the ballots. For those parts of the constituency where the polling staff was kidnapped, the ECP may exercise the option of holding re-election as there is no other option to rectify the wrongs committed there.

While it may order investigation into the criminal negligence shown by the district administration throughout the polling process, the ECP should also take measures to ensure that the staff deputed for elections feels free of pressure from invisible players. They can’t be expected to be dutiful in absence of any protection. This is obvious from the fact that the missing presiding officers came up with lame excuses as they were threatened with dire consequences by the kidnappers.

How things unfold in the coming days is not only important, they will determine the ECP’s course of action for upcoming elections and the future of democracy. Those who know Raja say he's a principled person who stands his ground. He's inspired hope of many people at a time when heads of many institutions have been compromised. "If he couldn't deliver, he will prefer leaving instead of clinging to power," said an official who worked with him in the past.