-Illustration by Sana Nasir
After appointing Returning Officers (ROs) for each constituency, the main duties of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) are reduced to guiding, supervising and communicating with them. The ROs select buildings to set up polling stations, decide which voter will cast their vote at which polling station and identify staff to perform the polling day duties. The ROs keep sending the details of all these activities to the ECP which notifies them in the official gazette.
For the polling day, the ROs are again directly responsible for distributing the polling paraphernalia (ballot papers, stamps and boxes etc.) amongst the presiding officers of all polling stations, ensuring that polling processes are carried out as prescribed by the ECP. Presiding officers, in turn, send the vote counts to the ROs for consolidation of the results. The ECP does not intervene in any of these procedures directly. Even if it receives a complaint, it first seeks a report on the subject from the concerned RO.
So, it is not wrong to say that the ECP merely regulates and supervises an election while the ROs, temporarily adopted by the ECP from other governmental departments, administer it for all practical purposes. That the gazette notifications expand the definition of the ECP to include the ROs into its fold, during the time required to perform election duties, is a legal nicety with little or no practical meaning.
We inherited this scheme for administering elections from our colonial masters and adopted the same for the National, and now the provincial, Assembly elections in 1950s which were widely reported to be flawed, fraudulent and rigged in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The ruling Muslim League was accused of stealing the mandate through its influence over the civil bureaucracy which administered these elections. The central government, however, failed to rig the public mandate in the same way in Bengal during the 1954 national assembly election for the sole reason that it was administered by the Bengali bureaucracy, which had no love lost for the Muslim League.
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