Delayed polls

Published March 24, 2023

Among the many disappointments of this past week has been Sikandar Sultan Raja’s meek surrender of his constitutional office to elements who clearly wished to see the democratic process in the country suspended. There were many who had continued to believe he would remain committed to a higher standard of conduct. They would have been most disappointed that the chief election commissioner has seemingly become party to a perverse project to subvert the Constitution.

By caving to the security establishment and government pressure to postpone elections well beyond what the law stipulates, Mr Raja has imperilled his legacy. Considering the ramifications of his biggest decision in recent months — unilaterally postponing the Punjab polls after a date had already been announced — there are genuine concerns regarding the ECP’s ability to hold any elections in a free and fair environment.

It is impossible to view the decision with any charity. It is nothing less than a tragic betrayal of the people by the ECP, the present government and each department of state that has refused to facilitate the electoral exercise.

The excuse presented to the country as the delay was being announced was as flimsy as what we had first heard when it became apparent that those in power were not interested in holding polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab on time. ‘Pakistan is not safe enough to hold an electoral exercise’, the ECP repeated on Wednesday night; ‘no one is available to provide security for the conduct of polls’.

The fact that there was no question of ‘choice’ in this matter was glossed over: the state would have been bound to provide the ECP with all the support and security it needed for the conduct of elections, yet it seems it had no interest in pushing for it.

So, what will it take for Pakistan to once again be ‘safe enough’ for democracy to prevail? Who will make that call? Will it be the same people who, at the moment, are refusing to provide security to the poll exercise? When did this country make decision-making regarding the electoral process officially dependent on the whims of the security establishment? What happens if, come October, they once again refuse to ‘greenlight’ the poll exercise?

The PDM government, as its present behaviour suggests, would have few qualms about intervening in such a scenario. Imran Khan or no Imran Khan, it has fumbled on a scale so spectacular that it is highly unlikely to want to turn to the public even six months from now. These questions should give any democratically inclined mind pause about the path this country is being forced onto. If the ECP does not reverse its decision, the precedents being set are going to damage Pakistani democracy, perhaps irrevocably so.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2023

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