• ECP stops trainings of election staff; official says schedule not feasible without ROs
• PTI demands poll schedule ‘within 24 hours’, seeks election supervisors from judiciary
• PML-N says PTI didn’t question appointment of bureaucrats in 2018 polls; PPP says won’t tolerate delays

ISLAMABAD: A day after a Lahore High Court order suspended a notification by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) regarding the appointment of returning officers (RO) and district returning officers (DROs) from the bureaucracy, the election watchdog on Thursday stopped a three-day session to train ROs, only a day after its commencement.

The high court order, which came in response to a petition submitted by the PTI, has seemingly brought the electoral process to a standstill, causing widespread concern among political parties — including the petitioner PTI — regarding general elections which are slated for Feb 8 next year.

In its petition in the high court, PTI had contested the appointments of bureaucrats to act as DROs and ROs for the upcoming general elections and sought the appointment of officials from the lower judiciary for the poll exercise.

The watchdog was expected to announce the election schedule within this week, but now it seems to be in limbo.

An ECP official said the announcement of the schedule depended on the final verdict in the case related to the appointment of DROs and ROs.

“The ROs are the ones who issue public notices inviting nominations and also receive and scrutinise nomination papers. An election schedule cannot be issued in the absence of ROs,” he said. “In fact, it is the job of the ROs to implement the schedule,” the ECP official explained.

The official said the appointment of ROs was made as per the law, as he expressed surprise over the court ruling, which came on late Wednesday night.

He said another hurdle were the delimitation cases being remanded to the election watchdog by the high courts for reconsideration. The official claimed that the judiciary, not the ECP, would be responsible in case elections were delayed.

However, the official said that intervention from the Supreme Court could dissipate the uncertainty surrounding elections in the wake of these recent developments, but an ECP spokesperson rejected reports that it planned to approach the Supreme Court against the LHC order.

PTI seeks schedule

On the other hand, the PTI demanded the issuance of a poll schedule within 24 hours, saying the election watchdog “still has time to appoint DROs and ROs from the lower judiciary, if they do not want to find an excuse to postpone the elections”.

PTI Chairman Gohar Ali Khan alleged that the Election Commission of Pakistan had made an excuse to postpone elections in the past as well.

“The ECP had to issue the schedule for the elections but it did not. District administration officers cannot be appointed as ROs because they can be involved in rigging. That is why we demanded to take ROs from the judiciary,” he clarified.

“PTI is the only party which has been making efforts for elections for the last two years, but ECP has been trying to avoid it. We demand the ECP announce the election schedule within 24 hours,” he said.

He also called on the Supreme Court to ensure that the elections were held on time, as suspension of the DROs and ROs could not be a justification for the delay.

Reacting to his remarks, an ECP spokesman said the commission could not be held responsible for the present situation.

Ikram Junaidi in Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2023

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