THE PTI government’s autocratic mentality is again on full display, even as it feigns adherence to the law. Following a federal cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said “the government could not fund any election held without [the use of] electronic voting machines as after the recent amendment, the law [only] recognised polls involving the use of EVMs”. A committee, he added, had been set up to deliberate further on this point while the law ministry would also give its opinion. The government may only be testing the waters, but it would be well advised not to travel further down this undemocratic path.

Indeed, it is difficult to see the statement as anything other than an attempt to browbeat the Election Commission of Pakistan, even if the option of withholding funds from it is couched as something still under discussion. The ECP is a constitutionally empowered, independent and permanent body responsible for organising and conducting elections in the country: does the government’s stance not constitute an implied threat to its autonomy? And how does it serve the law when the centre ponders an action that would prevent the ECP from fulfilling its mandate? Moreover, the amendment to the Elections Act 2017 that the minister referred to in his press briefing did not exclude paper ballots, or say that only the results of EVMs would be considered legitimate. The ECP, which is functioning with two members less because the government and the opposition cannot agree on whom to appoint, has rejected what it terms “pressure and intimidation” from the centre in expediting the process of purchasing the machines.

The recent saga of poll reforms is a sad reflection on the state of our democracy, when the party in power considers it kosher to bulldoze through amendments to the election law that the opposition is vociferously objecting to. It goes without saying that parties to an election must to a reasonable degree have the expectation of a level playing field if the results are to be accepted as being genuine. Certainly, Pakistan’s chequered electoral history has many a time seen the pitch queered by unelected forces in cahoots with unscrupulous politicians. However, parliament was moving in the right direction. The Elections Act 2017 was the outcome of a bipartisan consensus that took nearly three years and over 100 committee meetings to arrive at. Compare that with the acrimony leading up to the joint session of parliament and the pandemonium that surrounded the passage of the amendment bill. Even more surprising was that this took place just two months after a parliamentary panel was set up to discuss the contentious poll reforms pertaining to EVMs and I-voting for overseas Pakistanis. It proved a brief, stillborn attempt at consensus. One can safely say that debate and discussion on election laws has suffered a serious setback.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2021

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