AZAM Swati, alongside Fawad Chaudhry, led the PTI barrage against the ECP.
AZAM Swati, alongside Fawad Chaudhry, led the PTI barrage against the ECP.

THE PTI government has been constantly itching for a fight over the years, throwing punches at anybody and everybody seen to be in disagreement with the party, its policies, even its ethos. The year 2021 saw the brawl extend to the Election Commission. It has been a rollercoaster ride and it was far from over when the year came to an end. The PTI’s desire for instant gratification of its political and electoral demands was not fulfilled by the ECP on constitutional and procedural grounds. The spat then spilled over into other issues and spawned a trend through the year that saw the PTI deliberately and purposely vilifying the ECP and painting it as a rival. It has been a surreal experience watching the ruling party lock horns with a constitutional body without delving deep into the requirements of the issue under contest.

The Senate elections in March witnessed this urge for instant gratification come into play. Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that the elections must be held through an open ballot. There was no debate or discussion and no space for dissent. It had to be done. So, party spokespersons launched a vocal campaign to establish that anyone who opposed this demand was in fact complicit in letting corruption take place in the said election.

The ECP tried to explain that the issue was not as simple as was being painted by the ruling party. It reminded the PTI that there was a procedure to alter the voting format and it could not be done just because the PM wanted it done. Ultimately the courts favoured the ECP position, but the ruling party kept criticising the ECP without even attempting to understand the complexity of the situation.

From then onwards, it was downhill. The Daska election disaster accelerated the slide. Such was the level of manipulation that the ECP halted the result. Despite a PTI backlash, the ECP stood its ground and finally ordered a re-poll in the entire constituency. The re-poll led to a PML-N victory. Later investigations proved that massive irregularities had taken place and the polling staff was actually forcibly taken away for the entire night. The Daska disaster was a seminal moment in PTI’s campaign against the ECP.

The major source of concern was the inability of the ruling party to resolve these issues through a quiet process. There may have been some genuine complaints the PTI may have harboured, and perhaps even some valid suggestions and recommendations to improve the electoral process, but these needed to be communicated and discussed through proper channels. Instead, the PTI chose the public route to pour scorn on the ECP at every opportunity. This set the tone for a perpetual state of confrontation regardless of the merits of the issue at hand.

Issues kept cropping up and the discourse remained poisonous. The long-running PTI’s foreign funding case continued to labour through repeated hearings, and the party's reaction spilled over into the electoral reforms issue. Like in the Senate elections issue, here, too, the PTI declared it wanted EVMs and enfranchisement of overseas Pakistanis in the next general elections. Without any discussions with other stakeholders, the PTI drafted an electoral reforms bill and had it bulldozed through the National Assembly. The ECP had come up with a long list of serious objections and constitutional violations in the bill, but the ruling party shrugged these aside. When the ECP said many of the things in the bill could not be implemented against a deadline, the PTI started its campaign to criticise the ECP and federal ministers Azam Swati and Fawad Chaudhry used harsh language to denounce the constitutional body. This was a deliberate upping of the ante and opposition members saw this as an attempt to pressure the ECP.

In essence, as far as the PTI was concerned, the ECP could do no right. Even after the bulldozing of the bill, there were demands from the opposition that the bill should be reviewed in the Senate committee so that amendments could be made. Initially the government displayed some flexibility and it appeared that all stakeholders could sit together and build a consensus. The ECP also presented its suggestions. However, soon it became apparent that the government was not willing to compromise. It summoned a joint session of parliament and without any debate once again bulldozed dozens of bills, including the electoral reforms one without incorporating any changes suggested earlier.

The ECP now has little choice, but to implement the law. But it still maintains that practical obstacles are many. By yearend, the government was engaging with the ECP, but the essential nature of antipathy did not seem to have diluted.

With the Punjab local government elections due in a few months and talk of general elections before their scheduled time refusing to die down, the role of the ECP has become more important than ever. The ruling party’s stormy relationship with the ECP has complicated these matters and it will be a big challenge for all stakeholders to agree on the rules of the next elections if the body responsible for holding them remains a target of suspicion and criticism by the ruling party.

The year 2021 therefore saw matters linked to electoral contests taking a downward turn instead of gaining strength before the next general elections. The nation may well be headed towards yet another controversial electoral exercise.

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