Thursday September 16, 2021

Dismissing discourse

September 13, 2021

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is an independent body responsible for holding fair and free elections in the country. Its chairperson assumes office after a unanimous decision by the government and the opposition. This commission deserves respect and its advice must carry weight in the centres of power. It seems that the government in its zeal to introduce electoral reforms is bent upon violating democratic norms. On Sept 10, Railways Minister Azam Swati at a meeting of the Senate committee on parliamentary affairs expressed his desire to set the ECP on fire, while alleging that the ECP was taking bribes to rig elections.

Such statements only end up making the political culture even more toxic in the country. One would expect the government to show some restraint while dealing with such an important issue as electoral reforms that involve some radical changes in the process, including the use of new voting machines. The democratic process in this country has already suffered a lot, and there is no need to damage it further. Earlier the opposition parties were the target but now the ECP has been lassoed in too. Rather than continue the dialogue, the government is indulging in mudslinging against the ECP and opposition. Discourse is the soul of democracy and a healthy political process, and any legislative practice that bypasses the discourse mechanism in and out of parliament will always be prone to controversy. There is also an urgent need to reduce the level of acrimony that has prevailed lately in Pakistani politics. Accusations of partisanship and bribery are very serious and the government must make sure it at least tries to take everyone along no matter how difficult that prospect may be.

While there is enough argument to grant voting rights to Pakistani citizens living abroad, the proposed use of EVMs has generated enough scepticism. The fact is that electoral reforms will only work if they are not used as a red herring by any stakeholder in the process; and there is no point in any reform if there is no political consensus around it. A strong belief in upholding the constitution is what has led to governments in other parliamentary democracies following free and transparent elections, no matter how much acrimony exists among parties. If we cannot ensure a fair and free election, conducted by an impartial body, we cannot claim to be a democracy.