Staying neutral

Published February 6, 2023

THE Election Commission of Pakistan has what is perhaps one of the most thankless jobs in the country. The countless variables in the electoral process, limited public understanding of the ECP’s role and capabilities, and our public’s general tendency to believe conspiracy theories more easily than they do simple, straight facts make its job all the more difficult to execute. These challenges make it incumbent upon ECP officials to develop a thick skin if they wish to remain focused on discharging their constitutional responsibilities under a strict code of impartiality. It is a big ask, especially when one is constantly being harangued and accused of all manner of impropriety by powerful individuals with a lot more reach and influence than an ordinary civil servant. While the ECP’s current stewardship deserves commendation both for resisting the extreme pressure it has been subjected to by certain disgruntled politicians, as well as for ensuring the conduct of various elections in a largely satisfactory manner, it must also be chided for lately allowing its critics to get under its skin. The sedition case registered against PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry by the ECP secretary has been seen as a vindictive act against one of the Commission’s fiercest critics. Likewise, the ECP’s prosecution of several senior PTI leaders for contempt — even though nobody who matters has taken their accusations seriously — can be seen in a similar light. There may be legal grounds for the ECP to proceed on both counts, but it must be asked: is it really more important for it to win against the PTI or to continue demonstrating impartiality in its conduct?

Its recent tendency to react to provocation has also cast a shadow on the ECP’s other decisions. For example, the announcement of dates for by-elections on recently vacated National Assembly seats and refusal to do the same for the KP and Punjab Assembly elections on a shaky pretext gives one pause. It makes it seem as if the Commission is acting in support of the federal government, which explicitly wants the provincial assembly elections delayed but has comparatively little to worry about when the National Assembly by-elections are held. The watchdog does not need reminding that it is entering a particularly sensitive period in which everything it does will be subject to scrutiny. It must not get distracted.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2023

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