HAD people not lost their lives, the ham-fisted attempt at rigging the Daska by-election on Feb 19 could have been described as a parody. In fact, what transpired that day was a shocking display of the extent to which local and provincial administrations were willing to go to corrupt the process. It is therefore fitting that the Election Commission of Pakistan has declared the by-election null and void. In its detailed order issued on Thursday, the ECP said that the poll “has not been conducted honestly, fairly and in a transparent manner… leading to make the process of results doubtful/ unascertainable”. Not only did officers of 20 polling stations go missing after the votes were cast, but violent clashes created an atmosphere of intimidation for voters during the day, thereby rendering the exercise egregiously tainted overall. The regulatory body has therefore announced re-election not only at the 20 polling stations that were considered problematic, but in the entire constituency. While the PML-N, which is claiming that its candidate’s mandate was stolen, welcomed the ECP’s decision, the PTI revised its initial stance. It had earlier said that it respected the ECP’s decision and that it proves the PTI had fulfilled its pledge to allow institutions to function independently. Later however, the ruling party said it would challenge it in the Supreme Court.

The Daska by-election can be seen as a test case. With general elections a little over two years away, and possibly other polls in the interim, had the ECP taken a lenient view of the excesses committed, it would have sent a very wrong message and opened the floodgates for more in the same vein. Moreover, the regulatory body has also taken to task those involved in the brazen attempt to thwart the will of the people in the Daska constituency. Exercising the powers given to it under the Elections Act 2017 to ensure that polls are held in a conducive manner, the ECP has ordered federal and provincial authorities to suspend several public officials. These personnel, according to the ECP statement, will not be appointed for any election duty in future. The Punjab chief secretary and IG police, both federal appointees, have been summoned by the regulatory body for “ignoring their duties” on the day in question. It is heartening that the ECP under its current chairman has demonstrated it will tolerate nothing less than a free and fair election.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2021

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