With the Punjab bracing itself for by-elections in July, we explore just how challenging it is for the ECP to do its job
he Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is responsible for holding transparent, fair and violence free elections. It engages state machinery to achieve this objective during elections.
The Elections Act 2017 defines the powers of the Commission to ensure fair election. It says the Commission may—“(a) stop the polls at one or more polling stations at any stage of the election if it is convinced that it shall not be able to ensure the conduct of the election justly, fairly and in accordance with law due to large scale malpractices, including coercion, intimidation and pressures, prevailing at the election; (b) review an order passed by an officer under this Act or the Rules, including rejection of a ballot paper; and (c) issue such instructions, exercise such powers and make such consequential orders as may in its opinion, be necessary for ensuring that an election is conducted honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with the provisions of this Act and the Rules.”
As the Punjab braces itself for by-elections in 20 constituencies, questions arise about the challenges faced by the ECP in making them free, fair and peaceful. Is it more challenging for the ECP to perform its duties during by-elections than in general elections? The News on Sunday put this question to the experts.
Majid Nizami, a member of Jang Group’s election cell, says that unlike the general elections, the sitting government is a party in by-elections and fields its candidates for the vacant seats. It frequently uses administrative power and official resources to get results in its favour. This poses challenges for the commission, he adds. “As by-elections are held on a limited number of seats, the resources of contesting political parties are fully focused there.”
Nizami says it is a big challenge for the Commission to stop use of development funds by the ruling party to influence voters, which is a violation of election laws. “What happens is that the government releases funds in the name of ‘repairs’ and ‘maintenance’ and attempts political engineering.”
The voter turnout in by-elections is traditionally low. This is also a matter of concern for the Commission, says Nizami. He points out that in by-elections motivation among voters is low and the candidates have to make an extra effort to bring them to the polling stations. This is not the case for general elections where there is greater spontaneous interest among voters. In by-elections, Nizami says, candidates typically provide transport to voters which is prohibited under election laws. This means that a lot of money is involved – which has to be checked by the Commission.
Kanwar Dilshad, a former ECP secretary, believes that the challenges faced by the Commission during general elections and by-elections are quite similar. He says the difference is that of scale. He says it has come to his knowledge that the sitting Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) has taken Pakistan Rangers as well as the Army on board in order to ensure that the upcoming by-elections are transparent and violence free. “This is a challenge that the Commission faces.”
Dilshad adds that governments are always tempted to use administrative powers in elections. However, he says, the bureaucracy is loyal to nobody. He cites the example of Daska by-elections where the ECP took notice of irregularities and initiated action against the district’s administration, adding that this action added to the Commission’s credibility.
A report released by the ECP on the February 19 by-election in Daska had concluded that election officials, police and the local administration failed to play their designated roles in the requisite manner and were found to be ‘puppets’ in the hands of their unlawful masters. The controversial by-election was marred by violence, rigging and the disappearance of over 20 presiding officers (POs). Subsequently, a fact-finding inquiry was launched to probe into the irregularities.
Salman Abid, a political analyst, sees a lot of challenges facing the ECP in making the upcoming by-elections in the Punjab free, fair and violence free. He says the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is pitched against the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) adding that a war-like political situation is emerging because the results of these by-elections will decide the eventual sustainability of the government in the Punjab and impact the next general elections. He says the political polarisation is so immense that violence is feared.
Abid says that the PML-N has been accused in the past of using administrative powers and state institutions to its benefit. He says the PTI has also been claiming that it is getting support from the ECP. He says it is important that the Commission should dispel this perception. “Release of development funds and postings and transfers in the constituencies where by-elections are being held, raise questions about the credibility and effectiveness of the Commission as a poll watch dog,” he says.
The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com