ISLAMABAD: The controversial ordinance amending the Elections Act to allowing public office holders, including ministers, to take part in the campaigns of electoral candidates, has set off alarm bells at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

A meeting of the ECP held here with Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja in the chair noted that after the amendment to the Elections Act, the government would be able to use its influence and state resources in elections, which would clearly mean denying a level-playing field to all contestants.

Section 181 of the Elections Act states, “No government functionary or elected representative including a local government functionary or elected representative, shall announce any development scheme for a constituency after the announcement of the Election Programme of that constituency.”

Through the ordinance, promulgated by President Dr Arif Alvi, Section 181(A) has been added to the Act. The new law allows a member of parliament, provincial assembly or elected member of local government, including member holding any other office under the constitution or any other law, will be allowed to visit or address public meetings in “any area or constituency”.

ECP officials, however, observed that it was for them to frame a code of conduct for political parties, contesting candidates and others involved in the electoral exercise, under Section 233 of the Elections Act.

Section 233 of the Elections Act states: “The commission shall, in consultation with political parties, frame a code of conduct for political parties, contesting candidates, election agents and polling agents. The commission shall also frame a code of conduct for security personnel, media and election observers. A political party, a candidate, an election agent, a polling agent, security personnel, media and an observer shall follow the code of conduct during an election. The commission shall publish a code of conduct framed under this section in the official gazette and on its website.”It emphasised that the parliament and the provincial assemblies were barred under Article 222 of the Constitution from passing any law that has the effect of taking away or abridging any of the powers of the chief election commissioner or the commission itself.

Later, on the directions of the commission, an ECP team headed by its Secretary Umar Hameed Khan and consisting of members from the ECP’s legal wing, met the attorney general to discuss the issue.

Sources said the attorney general insisted that the change was not against any law. They said the ECP team would shortly brief the commission about the meeting with the attorney general following which a course of action would be adopted.

The controversial change also drew criticism from major political parties.

PPP Senator Sherry Rehman tweeted that the government had “prorogued parliament to pass a slew of presidential ordinances which would give their ministers the unprecedented ability to misuse state resources for campaigning for elections while in office.” She said this showed how far gone they are in their fear.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Senator Irfan Siddiqui earlier said the unilateral amendments to the Elections Act, which had been passed unanimously by the parliament, was a manifestation of the ‘authoritarian mindset’.

Talking to reporters, the senator said giving free rein to government’s authority and influence in the electoral process was extreme form of rigging. “Such a law is also against the spirit of the constitution. If the ministers and government officials are to be given free hand, then what is the justification of forming a caretaker government for general elections?” he asked.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2022

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