THE Election Commission of Pakistan has issued an updated code of conduct, and the concepts behind many of these rules make sense: candidates should be on an even playing field financially and in terms of the opportunities and space they get for campaigning, and election-related activities should not disrupt security or daily life as far as possible. When it comes to the specifics, though, some of the regulations are asking to be violated. The spending limit, for example, has been retained at its former level of Rs1.5m. High campaign costs make it impossible for those without means to contest elections, but the fact is that such a low limit will only lead candidates to find ways around it, which in turn will diminish the ECP’s authority. A number of other regulations also seem overly restrictive, like a complete ban on wall chalkings and very limited use of loudspeakers.
Some politicians have already described the regulations as being unrealistic, and what this reflects is that the code will simply be disregarded if it doesn’t reflect the experiences of those involved in campaigning itself. They have pointed to the issue of voter transportation, for example: the code prohibits candidates from transporting voters to polling booths. But when public transport is not available in all parts of the country, some other mechanism — whether state-sponsored transport or more polling booths — would have to be provided to ensure turnout. What would make sense before rules such as these are finalised for the general elections is to consult political parties in a meaningful way. The ECP can disregard suggestions that would give certain parties an advantage and incorporate objective advice that is informed by politicians’ actual experiences of campaigning in Pakistan. Now is the right moment to carry out this process. The government and the opposition will soon have to negotiate such issues as the chief election commissioner’s appointment, an interim government and the general election schedule. Bipartisan input on campaign regulations would round out this process and help modify the code of conduct to ensure fairness and transparency — and that the ECP has real authority in the upcoming polls.