THE contrast could not be more stark, and worrying, from a democratic perspective. The Election Commission of Pakistan has now ordered the suspension of a democratic institution ie the local governments in the provinces, ostensibly because members of these elected set-ups may “influence” the poll outcome by denying candidates in the general election a “level playing field”. LG officials had already been barred from participating in the general election campaigns of candidates, and no evidence has been presented by the ECP of these officials seeking to influence the election or disrupt the electioneering of rival party candidates. The unprecedented decision by the ECP to suspend a democratic institution appears to be both arbitrary and illogical. Will the ECP suspend the provincial and federal governments when the next LG elections are held? It ought to be remembered that the LG systems in at least three provinces have been widely criticised as toothless and not empowered. How have they suddenly become such a potent threat to the fair conduct of a general election?
Contrast the deeply flawed and arguably unjustifiable attitude of the ECP towards the elected institution of the local governments with the almost blind trust reposed by it in the security forces that have been tasked with helping ensure the integrity of the polling process. A notification issued by the ECP has granted the powers of a first-class magistrate to personnel of the armed forces in charge of security at the polling stations. Remarkably, the ECP has stipulated that magisterial powers conferred on personnel of the armed forces can be exercised if the polling station’s presiding officer fails to act on a complaint. That, in effect, puts the presiding officer, who reports to the ECP, in a subordinate position to the person in charge of security at the polling station. The ECP is a constitutionally autonomous institution, but it is not unaccountable. In recent weeks, as the ECP’s role has necessarily grown larger ahead of the general election, the chief election commissioner and other members of the commission have virtually disappeared from public view. The flurry of ECP notifications ought to have been explained at news conferences and the media given the opportunity to put questions to the commission. The focus in a general election should rightly be political parties and the candidates; institutions tasked with the conduct and organisation of the election ought to remain in the background. But when decision after decision is stoking controversy, the ECP ought to clearly justify its actions or else reverse course immediately.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2018
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