Dutch courage

Published June 2, 2024

THE Election Commission of Pakistan continues to act as if it has no interest in ensuring fairness.

Just days after it was ordered by a Lahore High Court judge to notify six more election tribunals for Punjab, for which nominations had been sent weeks earlier by the LHC chief justice, a senior ECP official, responding to a reporter’s question, brushed aside the injunction as “meaningless”.

It seems the ECP had grown more confident about defying the LHC since Commission officials met the law minister and attorney general to discuss, among other things, the controversial ordinance passed recently by the acting president, Senate Chairman Yousuf Raza Gilani. The ordinance in question empowers the Commission to appoint whoever it pleases to election tribunals without worrying about what the LHC chief justice has to say.

It bears highlighting that these election tribunals are supposed to rule on complaints made by losing candidates against the irregularities and illegalities they claim were committed during the vote-counting process. Many of these claims — especially those pertaining to changing results — have been supported by the findings of independent observers, election watchdogs, and even statements made by other losing candidates. In recent weeks, the courts have also separately overturned several controversial decisions by the ECP concerning the recounting of votes and changing of results well after the elections were concluded.

As regards the matter at hand, it bears recalling that the LHC chief justice had sent a list of nominations to the ECP for the purpose of appointing more tribunals in Punjab, where the number of complaints far exceeds the capacity of the two tribunals that have already been appointed. For weeks, the ECP sat on these nominations and refused to appoint more tribunals till Mr Gilani’s ordinance came along like a deus ex machina to do away with the ‘problem’ entirely.

The ECP can now appoint whichever judge it pleases, be they retired or serving, to sit in judgement against its own decisions. It will be difficult not to view with deep suspicion the fact that the ECP, which is constitutionally mandated to ensure non-partisanship in all election-related matters, seems to have agreed to lean on an ordinance, one of the most patently undemocratic legislative tools available, just so it may bypass Section 140 of the Elections Act as it existed in its original condition.

One wonders how this will engender public faith in the impartiality or fairness of the tribunals that will eventually be formed by such blatant disregard for checks and balances. Alas, the Commission has been supported wholeheartedly in implementing its twisted interpretations of the democratic process by some willing collaborators in the legislature. They must take stock of the long-term harm their actions are causing to the Pakistani democracy.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2024

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