ISLAMABAD: In what appears to be a move to create a rift within the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in a renewed onslaught after the controversial remarks by a minister about setting fire to such institutions, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government on Sunday asked two ECP members “to review” the decisions of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja.
“I would like to ask the two members of the ECP to come forward and review the decisions of the CEC,” said federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry while speaking at a news conference with federal Minister for Science and Technology Shibli Faraz at the press information department.
Mr Chaudhry asked the two ECP members “to review” the CEC’s decisions, after criticising the latter for opposing electoral reforms, including the use of electronic voting machines in the next polls. He was of the opinion that as the members from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had not been appointed, the ECP was incomplete and it should not make fundamental decisions like delimitation of the constituencies.
Opposition demands punitive action against ministers for ‘inciting’ ECP members against CEC
While reacting to the latest presser of federal ministers against the ECP, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) accused the PTI government of trying to blackmail the ECP and demanded “punitive action” against those “inciting the ECP members against the CEC”.
Fawad asks CEC to quit
The information minister told the news conference the PTI government had serious “reservations” over the CEC’s conduct and asked the CEC to step down from his position over his “political” role.
“Both the opposition and the CEC are using the same language,” Mr Chaudhry said while referring to dozens of ECP’s objections to the proposed electoral reforms.
“The politicians can talk on issues openly and they are even criticised ... but the judiciary and the ECP should not portray themselves as opposition leader,” the minister said while accusing the CEC of being a part of the campaign to “discredit” the government plan for introducing voting machines.
The minister alleged the ECP had ‘excluded’ all the supporting arguments in favour of voting machines in the report that carried information from other countries such as the Philippines, Estonia and the Dominican Republic and their positive experiences with the machines.
He explained that voters’ trust in elections in the Philippines increased from 35 per cent in 2007 to 75pc and 89pc in the 2010 and 2019 elections, respectively, after the introduction of voting machines. He said as many as 1,000 election-related petitions were filed in the Philippines in 2007 and their number reduced to just 11 in 2019 due to the use of voting machines. He was of the opinion that conditions in the Philippines and Pakistan were similar.
“The way the positive material was excluded (from the report) shows it clearly that the CEC, for a purpose, is against the (electoral) reforms,” the minister argued.
Warning that the government had so far been exhibiting “restraint”, Mr Chaudhry asked the CEC “to distance himself from “disputed things” in line with the requirement of his position. “If he [CEC] doesn’t want to stay away from controversies and believes that he can contribute in politics, then he should resign and start doing politics,” he said.
“We are exhibiting great restraint whereas the ECP sent us a notice,” said the minister referring to the notices sent to him and Minister for Railways Azam Swati by the ECP over their recent outbursts against the state institution.
Mr Chaudhry said they could have filed a contempt petition against the CEC for refusing to implement the Supreme Court clear directives to use technology in the Senate elections held in March.
“Give me an example where state institutions leave the president’s meeting or the parliamentary committee meeting. Is this a country or a banana republic?” said the minister while referring to the recent walkouts of the ECP members from the meetings held on the voting machines controversy.
“The federal cabinet is tolerating all this with patience. Even personal attacks were made, but we did not take any action,” he said.
At the outset of the presser, Mr Chaudhry explained that he represented the cabinet and being official spokesperson he “says whatever is the thinking of the government”.
He categorically declared that the next elections would be held only after the reforms and that the government would get the election laws passed from the joint session of the parliament. He maintained it was the responsibility of the parliament to decide the process of conducting elections and the ECP should respect the decision.
Next polls only after reforms
“We can’t leave everything and go for the 2028 [election]. The 2023 general elections will be based on and only possible after reforms — there is no other way [possible] except this,” the minister declared.
Minister for Science and Technology Shibli Faraz termed all the objections raised by the ECP to the proposed voting machines “invalid”.
He said the ECP gave a list of 37 objections and 27 of them were related to the incapacity of the ECP itself to hold elections in such manner.
He alleged that the ECP was deliberately using ‘delay tactics’ so that voting machines could not be used in the coming elections.
“Why didn’t the ECP take any step to use voting machines in around 10 by-elections held in recent months,” he asked while referring to the Elections Act 2017.
He said the “national decision” could not be taken or hindered as per “someone’s willingness”.
The minister said irrespective of like or dislike of anyone, voting machines should be used to conduct the general elections in 2023.
Replying to a question, the information minister said some opposition members had recently met National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser who tried to remove the misconceptions. He claimed that the government wanted to take opposition along in the decision-making process. The government also wanted the Speaker’s committee to become functional, he added.
Seeking “strong punitive action” against the federal ministers, PML-N information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb said they were “attempting to blackmail the ECP and inciting the members of the commission against the CEC”.
“(Prime Minister) Imran Khan has created this entire fiasco only to pressure the ECP and blackmail it to give a decision in his favour in the illegal foreign funding case,” she alleged.
Ms Aurangzeb demanded that strict legal action must be taken under Article 10 of the Election Act against the couple of ministers for “attacking” the ECP while sitting at the press information department only because they didn’t have any answers to valid objections raised by the ECP.
“Inciting the members of the ECP against the CEC is treason and an attack on constitutional institutions,” she said.
Attempt to tarnish ECP’s image
In a separate statement, PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said the ministers had lost their temper after receiving notices from the ECP.
“Earlier, the ECP was threatened to be set on fire by a sitting federal minister and now an organised campaign is being launched to make the constitutional body controversial,” said the senator.
“The government is trying to tarnish the ECP’s reputation in order to rig the next general elections,” he said, adding that commission had opposed the unilateral decision of the government to use voting machines and raised serious concerns at the hearing of Senate’s standing committee.
“The government ministers are accusing the CEC to isolate him and make his position controversial,” he said while recalling that the present CEC had been nominated by the ruling PTI leadership itself.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2021