Every chief has his day. Inside the Red Zone, the man of the moment is undoubtedly Pakistan’s chief election commissioner. Sikandar Sultan Raja is expected today to deliver what could arguably be the most important verdict of his tenure till date. He and his fellow members of the commission will decide the fate of the disputed NA-75 Daska election knowing full well that the nation’s eyes are on him. That’s a fairly heavy burden to bear for someone who has spent his entire working life as a bureaucrat.
This chief however appears to be full of surprise. His appointment had been an underwhelming affair — another civil servant handed another big office to run as civil servants run all government offices: with minimum initiative and maximum caution. He was expected to swim with the flow, avoiding brushing against big toes, big egos and big decisions. Chiefs of the election commission don’t have a glowing legacy per se, and this chief was expected to carry on this tradition quite well, thank you very much.
This February, however, something snapped. The chief stood in the Supreme Court and stood his ground. The court is hearing the case of whether Senate elections should be held through an open or secret ballot. The chief (of the election commission) maintained the position that the existing mode of election via a secret ballot was the correct one according to the constitution and he refused to budge from his position despite pressure. This was rather unusual. Many eyebrows were raised (some in admiration). The chief who was expected to bend when expected to do so, was — rather inconveniently — not doing so. Was he actually taking his constitutional powers seriously?
This question may be answered today. Daska, by all accounts, has been a disastrous election. The chief has admitted it so himself. No one in their right mind could have ever imagined any chief election commissioner firing off the kind of press release that he did. The official document is a veritable charge sheet against the government of Punjab. The subsequent hearings at the election commission and the report of the returning officer (RO) have established beyond any reasonable doubt that something very wrong, very dubious, and very illegal took place in the dead of night. The votes in twenty polling stations, as the RO has verified in his report, were tampered. There was an attempt to steal an election.
That’s where the chief will be tested. It could be a legacy-making or breaking test for him. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
There are two reasons for this. First relates to the options he has for his Daska decision. He can (1) Declare the result as is, (2) Announce a re-poll in the 20 disputed polling stations, (3) Declare a re-poll in the 37 odd polling stations (including the ones in Daska city that saw slow polling due to violence) as demanded by the PML-N initially, or (4) Announce fresh elections in the entire constituency.
The second relates to the investigation and action he initiates in order to determine who is responsible for the vote tampering in the twenty polling stations in dispute. It also relates to what steps he is willing to take, using his official powers, to hold accountable senior members of the Punjab police and administration who were not available to facilitate him at night as they are required to do so by law.
The chief will have his day today. Will he nick the ball or hit it out of the park?
The timing is rather inconvenient for the ruling PTI. The Supreme Court is expected to announce its judgement on the Senate elections this week and it could open up a big can of worms. This coincides with a sense of foreboding inside the Red Zone. The grumbling in the ranks is quietly bubbling to the surface. In Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and even Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, PTI MNAs and MPAs are airing their grievances at a time when PTI needs every vote it can muster for the Senate elections, and especially the Islamabad seat being fought over by Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. PDM may be short on numbers but PTI appears short on tempers.
If this wasn’t enough, PML-N is planning to name names in the Daska debacle. When an entire staff of twenty polling stations vanishes for a few hours in the dead of night only to return together in the morning armed with a cockamamie story, things cannot remain secret. PML-N claims it has plenty of ammunition in this regard but it is waiting for the election commission to complete its hearings and make a decision. PTI leaders are putting up a brave face in public but privately they realise what a big blunder has happened in Daska. Rigging can play absolute havoc with PTI’s political narrative. The only saving grace, if one can call it that, for the PTI is that the Daska re-poll will not happen before the Senate elections of March 3. This means there will be one PML-N vote less in the National Assembly for the crucial Shaikh-Gilani election (assuming PML-N wins the seat).
Prime Minister Imran Khan will have his plate full when he returns from his visit to Sri Lanka.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2021