Published November 4, 2021

THE government appears to have no intention of backing down from its ongoing confrontation with the ECP. In fact, rather than advising restraint, it is upping the ante and encouraging more members of the ruling party to join in the row.

The immediate cause of the stand-off is the ugly outburst by Railways Minister Azam Swati against the ECP in September and subsequent remarks by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry. Mr Swati had accused the ECP of taking bribes and “always” rigging elections, adding that such institutions should be set ablaze. A few hours later, Mr Chaudhry in a press conference alleged that the ECP had become the opposition parties’ “headquarters”, with the chief election commissioner acting as their “mouthpiece”.

Last week, more than a month after issuing them show cause notices, the commission summoned the ministers to explain their “slanderous” remarks. On Monday, the premier expressed his displeasure at their ‘grilling’ by the ECP and said it was unfortunate that other PTI leaders were not standing by them.

Read more: Ministers prod ECP members into defying their boss

The next day, in a meeting with representatives of parties in the ruling coalition, Mr Khan shared with them the government’s stance on the ECP. He also sought their support for the use of electronic voting machines in the 2023 general election — and herein lies much of the actual reason for the PTI’s angst towards what is proving to be an independent-minded ECP.

The government has been touting EVMs as a foolproof way to ensure free and fair elections. However, just days before Mr Swati’s and Mr Chaudhry’s ill-considered — and unsubstantiated — allegations against the ECP, the latter had come up with 37 specific objections to the use of EVMs, including the contention that they could be tampered with. The ECP’s feedback reinforced the misgivings the opposition had already voiced over this method of polling.

Certainly, electoral fraud is a major problem in countries like Pakistan that have comparatively weak oversight mechanisms. It vitiates the political atmosphere, impacts governance and corrodes the democratic system. However, the manner in which Mr Khan is addressing poll reforms, reportedly planning to bulldoze them through in a joint session of parliament, defeats the very purpose of the exercise. Instead of strengthening democracy, such a bull-in-a-china-shop approach will have the opposite effect. All parties to an election must have confidence in measures to make them free and fair. Only that can result in credible poll reforms.

Read more: Controversial poll reforms

The ECP is integral to this process. If the government is so keen on EVMs, then all stakeholders must sit together and thrash out the issue even if consensus ultimately eludes them. But how can this happen when the prime minister refuses to initiate a well-intentioned and productive discussion with the opposition on the matter? And now, by encouraging members of his government to badmouth and discredit the ECP, Mr Khan is making the situation even more toxic.

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2021



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