The credibility issue

November 12, 2023

On how to restore people’s trust in the Election Commission and, by extension, the electoral process

The credibility issue


lections will take place in February next year, or so one hopes. Despite the justified or unwarranted delay in holding the elections, and a sense of predictability, almost inevitability, with which the outcome is anticipated, elections still hold significance because of how the system in Pakistan functions.

As things stand, Pakistan is widely regarded as a procedural democracy. A procedural democracy – distinct from a substantive democracy – is one that has put in place institutional mechanisms and requirements that give it a semblance of democracy while the political sphere might remain largely exclusive and non-competitive. And while it is debatable whether Pakistan is even a procedural democracy – because of the absence of freedom of expression, and due to the inconsistent credentials of the judiciary – this is closest one gets to define Pakistan’s current political system without calling it entirely undemocratic.

When the Supreme Court directed the Election Commission of Pakistan to reach out to the president, it also pointed out that elections ought to be held as soon as possible. It also lamented that an issue that should have taken care of by the routine functionality of the system had to be decided upon by the court. Nevertheless, it was another statement made by the chief justice that brings me to writing the current piece. The chief justice remarked that all institutions need to remain in their respective legal jurisdictions and perform the duties assigned to them. For a while now, the ECP is undoubtedly the institution that will remain under the greatest scrutiny for its role.

A few days prior, while dealing with a petition relating to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, the ECP was taken to task by the chief justice for negligence. He went as far as to suggest that the ECP had tried to mislead the court, and asked whether the ECP was sincere to the country. The CJP is not alone in questioning the commission; apprehensions regarding its neutrality, competence, docility to the incumbent power configuration have been raised since the vote of no confidence against the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government.

The ECP did not help its cause, or at least the cause that it is constitutionally mandated to uphold, when it challenged court orders related to holding provincial elections and sided with the caretaker provincial governments, especially in the Punjab, relating to bureaucratic transfers and postings. It appears that the ECP tried to restore its image, when in September, Reuters reported, that the ECP had written a letter to the caretaker prime minister’s office raising concerns regarding the perception that the caretaker government is a mere continuation of the setup that preceded it.

As the primary election watchdog and the institution vested with the authority to organise and conduct elections, the election commission carries ultimate responsibility towards maintaining the minimum standards that would retain Pakistan’s image as a procedural democracy. Given the current climate, one assumes that there are issues that will have a bearing on the elections that are outside the influence of the ECP. No matter where one stands politically, those issues will continue to render awkward any conversation of democratic credentials of the government that will be returned to power. However, within the present situation, there are a number of values that the ECP can uphold that will help restore its image as well as bring a semblance of credibility to the election results.

The foremost value that the commission can uphold is transparency. In previous years, matters related to party and election financing, candidate nomination, maintenance of electoral rolls and vote counting have remained rather opaque. To the ECP’s credit, with the use of technology, the voter registration has improved in the recent years. However, on other matters, especially related to financing and candidate nomination, we will continue to hear opposing arguments, which if not dispelled with greater transparency, will make the process more controversial.

One of the core values that the ECP purportedly upholds is inclusivity. In the current political climate, inclusivity assumes great significance. Excluding political parties or applying minus-X strategies has always made election results questionable. It is of paramount significance that the ECP creates a level playing field at least in the nomination process and disallows disbarring of candidates unless there are justifiable legal reasons for doing so.

One of the ways in which the ECP can make its job somewhat easier is by inviting and involving local and international election observers early in the process. These independent observers will allow the commission to address concerns, not only regarding how the actual elections take place but also those relating to the provision of a conducive environment for the elections.

Apart from issues surrounding navigating the realpolitik, the election commission needs to do a better job of including women in the process. It also has to ensure that in areas where accessibility remains an issue, especially those that might be under complete or partial snow cover, there are sufficient arrangements allowing people to use their most basic citizenship and democratic right.

It is indisputable that the ECP is under immense pressure. Various sides in the political fray wish for the ECP to act in their preferred manner. The limitations of the commission within the political environment are quite apparent as well. However, as I have suggested, there are steps that the ECP can take that might make not just the public take the process more seriously, but also retain some credibility for the institution.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Peshawar. He can be reached at

The credibility issue