Apex court asks ECP chief for workable Senate poll plan

Published February 17, 2021
The CEC said he was quite confident that the commission would be able to take steps to check corrupt practices. — AFP/File
The CEC said he was quite confident that the commission would be able to take steps to check corrupt practices. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Not convinced with the measures being employed by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to guard against the perception of corrupt practices in the coming Senate elections, the Supreme Court asked Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikander Sultan Raja to come up with a workable scheme when he will appear before the court again on Wednesday.

The CEC, however, told a five-judge SC bench, headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, that the commission had already considered the matter in depth and come to the conclusion that any attempt to make the ballot paper identifiable, maybe through printing of a serial number at the back of each vote, was not permissible until a suitable amendment to the laws was made.

“Making the ballot identifiable is against the spirit of Article 226 of the Constitution which deals with the election through secret ballot,” the CEC emphasised, assuring the court that a mechanism was in place under which the ECP could take prompt action in case of any complaint.

Sikander Raja says making ballot identifiable is against spirit of Article 226 of Constitution

However, he said the commission could not take notice on mere perceptions unless tangible evidence was provided, recalling how the ECP had taken notice of the recent video clips which went viral showing sale and purchase of Senate tickets.

The ECP, however, is required to go through the suggestions put forth before the court by Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Jawed Khan mainly proposing that secrecy could be maintained during the casting of votes which should be kept with the ECP, but made available to the head of any political party if he desires so after the elections.

The apex court, which had taken up a presidential reference seeking open ballot for the Senate elections, however, asked the CEC to consider the suggestions made by the AGP and come up with a response when the court will meet again at around 3pm on Tuesday.

But PPP stalwart Senator Raza Rabbani objected to the idea and highlighted that any proposal from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, especially when the party was facing a revolt within its ranks and files, would be considered partisan and against the spirit of Article 218(3) of the Constitution until all stakeholders were provided the opportunity and taken on board.

Mr Rabbani also stated that since the election schedule had been announced by the ECP, it would not be possible to pass any act now and any step for adherence to the laws or rules for ensuring implementation of Article 218(3) of the Constitution had to be taken by the commission independently on its own.

He said the concern being expressed by the apex court over the perception of corrupt practices was also shared by the people as well as all political parties of the country.

The chief justice, however, regretted that this was what the entire country wanted, but apparently not happening at all. “The Senate election is not taking place for the first time but the ECP is completely blank when we asked what measures they have devised to discourage the menace of corrupt practices in the elections,” the chief justice regretted, emphasising that the commission should understand that it was not at the receiving end but required to enforce the constitutional provisions with full force.

The AGP, however, explained that the suggestions given by him had not come from the PTI side and that the political parties were entitled to add their version or the ECP — an independent body — could accept or reject it. He argued that the Senate elections did not need to be secret though the ballot could be secret and since the ECP was the custodian of the ballot, these could remain within its control.

The chief justice observed that the ECP was not a silent spectator rather a constitutional body and, therefore, it should be expressive. “ECP is not a mute body and, therefore, should address the concern of the people who were worried when they learnt about the allegations of corrupt practices. Try to understand and appreciate the concern being expressed by the court,” the chief justice said repeatedly.

Earlier, CEC Raja informed the court that the ECP was cognisant of its constitutional obligation under Article 218(3) of the Constitution to guard against the corrupt practices and the elections should be held in a free, fair and transparent manner and that Chapter 10 of the Elections Act 2017 took care of such apprehensions.

He also stated that the commission had taken pre-emptive as well as preventive measures, in addition to a number of interventions, including setting up of a complaint management cell.

But Justice Mushir Alam said the ECP reply did not contemplate steps against those voters who failed to come up with the aspirations of their constituents or deviated from the party lines. “Please inform the court about the steps being contemplated by the commission to check this practice,” he added.

Justice Yahya Afridi suggested that the commission should go beyond the measures they had taken and wondered whether the reply the ECP had furnished sufficed the question being put by the court and whether such measures would ensure guarding against corrupt practices.

Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan wondered to what extent “secrecy” extended and what was the real meaning of secrecy. He observed that to him secrecy needed to be maintained while marking the ballot papers and reminded that even the tribunals could ask for the ballot.

Justice Ahsan also cited a famous couplet of Meer Taqi Meer and observed that the entire world knew about corrupt practices prior to the Senate elections and the information regarding corruption was also in the public domain, but the ECP had no idea about it.

Justice Umar Ata Bandial observed that the objective of maintaining secrecy was to protect the voter from influence and provide him with complete freedom to exercise his right to franchise. But the ECP could take affidavits from the candidates or set up a vigilance cell or encourage the candidates to file complaints in case of any wrongdoing, he added.

The CEC said he was quite confident that the commission would be able to take steps to check corrupt practices.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2021

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