Knockout punch?

Published January 1, 2024

FEARS that next month’s general elections will be reduced to an undemocratic farce have gained traction with the seemingly wholesale rejection of PTI candidates at the scrutiny stage.

On Saturday, most of the former ruling party’s big guns — as well as those allied with the PTI — were disallowed from running by the ECP, whereas former members of the PDM, and many others who dumped Imran Khan when the tide turned, were allowed to contest.

This shows a vindictiveness and partiality unbecoming of a neutral poll watchdog tasked with organising free and transparent elections.

While it was long expected that Mr Khan, after falling out with the powers that be, and particularly after the May 9 episode, would not be allowed to run, most of the PTI’s first- and second-tier leadership hoping to contest, too, were barred from the polls.

This list includes Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pervaiz Elahi, former National Assembly speaker Asad Qaiser, and others. Meanwhile, the Sindh-based Grand Democratic Alliance, which was at one time allied with the PTI, also faced rejection of some of its top leaders, while the BNP’s Akhtar Mengal was similarly barred.

Cancelling a mainstream party through arrests and intimidation, and now technicalities at the pre-poll stage, flies in the face of democracy. The PTI has indeed made numerous mistakes in and out of power. And the May 9 events were definitely a dark point in Pakistan’s history. But they did not take place in a vacuum.

Parties evolve and mature with time, and it should not be the job of unelected forces to ‘punish’ political parties. Moreover, as past precedent proves, state excesses have been unable to dent the popularity of parties.

The PPP faced the wrath of Gen Zia’s martial law regime, yet went on to form three governments. The PML-N was on the wrong side of Gen Musharraf, yet returned to power in 2013. Similarly, the PTI enjoys a significant vote bank, and it must be left to the people’s court to judge its performance.

There is still time to reverse course. The rejected candidates can appeal, and the tribunals have till Jan 10 to decide their cases. The tribunals should make decisions on merit; any coordinated effort to keep PTI and other candidates out will reek of bias.

If the electorate is convinced that pre-poll rigging is afoot, and the outcome is being managed by powerful quarters, it will hurt the legitimacy of elections as many voters will reject such a process and stay home on polling day.

Pakistan’s salvation lies in the supremacy of the constitutional process and unhindered democracy. Any other route will only exacerbate the many problems that plague this country, and those who have perverted the democratic process will be responsible.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2024

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