BY-ELECTIONS to seven provincial assembly seats in Punjab and Sindh on Feb 18 are an excellent opportunity for the Election Commission of Pakistan to test-run its plans for holding transparent and by-the-book elections later this year. By-elections are not a sure thing yet - the next session of parliament which begins today could see a general election timetable announced — and by-polls are substantially different in nature from a general election, most obviously in that political governments are still in control of the local administration during the election. But in at least two key areas, the ECP can try and impose greater order and transparency in the electoral process. First, there is the issue of the large amounts of money spent by candidates and their supporters. Present limits on campaign finances are patently unrealistic and the ECP has correctly suggested raising the sums a candidate can spend substantially. But the more competitive the race, the more candidates will be tempted to splash out.
Particularly with the overall electoral outcome mired in deep uncertainty, political parties and their candidates will be tempted to spend outrageous sums. The PPP and PML-N are believed to have already assembled enormous war chests and the ANP, PML-Q and PTI are no slackers when it comes to spending. The more money is spent, the more the electoral process is perverted — and the ECP will need to demonstrate steely resolve in clamping down on campaign spending abuses. Second, the ECP will need to demonstrate it can deal effectively and quickly — though fairly — with polling day transgressions. In a general election, with hundreds of seats contested on a single day, even the best-intentioned election commission can be overwhelmed with complaints of irregularities, some genuine, others instigated by losing candidates unable to accept their defeat. The ECP will need to devise a mechanism whereby it can sift through complaints to quickly deal with the more serious and substantive ones. There is rightly much positive expectation from the ECP today; now is the time for it to test its abilities.