Saturday, October 31, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Nov 1, 2015

Local bodies polls Twelve districts in Punjab and eight in Sindh went to the polls on Saturday to elect their representatives for the local bodies after a hiatus of 10 years, but this time on political party basis. Unfortunately, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and its provincial branches in Punjab and Sindh, contrary to the hope that they would have learnt some lessons from past controversies, seem again to have failed to conduct satisfactory local elections, partially if not substantially. Reports poured in all day of anomalies, mistakes and mismanagement in the polling in various constituencies throughout the two provinces, in a replay of the manner in which elections have been held since 2013 (general elections) and to date (by-elections). The credibility of the ECP was already virtually in tatters since the controversy over the 2013 general elections was agitated by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) with allegations about rigging that found their extended and most vigorous expression in the seven month sit-in by the PTI in Islamabad. The PTI may have been guilty of exaggeration and distortion of what actually transpired, as the conclusion of cases before the Election tribunals and the Judicial Commission that examined the 2013 electoral process indicated. No finding of systematic, planned rigging was discovered. However, both the Election Tribunals and the Judicial Commission pointed fingers at the mismanagement of the electoral process by the ECP. The PTI was not deterred by its failure to prove its rigging charges and continues to flog what is increasingly looking like a dead horse, upto and including on the eve of these local bodies elections. At the time of writing these lines, it is not possible to determine the outcome of these local elections as the Lahore High Court had initially stopped the media from announcing results until official confirmation was available, but later relented and allowed the media to start announcing the interim and non-official results as they become available, starting from one hour after the polls close, but with appropriate riders about the nature of these announcements as interim and unofficial. Whatever the final outcome, for the moment it is only possible to comment on the process itself, which again left something to be desired. First and foremost, it was alarming to be informed during the day that in some areas, the ballot papers had been wrongly printed and therefore voting could not take place in such locations. One wonders if the ECP has any process of checking its printed material before farming it out. Second, reports from some areas that unauthorised persons, particularly women, were caught openly stamping ballot papers according to their whims and wishes, often in the absence of polling staff. Third, and even more alarmingly, there were reports of clashes in both provinces. In Khairpur, Sindh, the home district of Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah, his niece was caught on camera stamping ballot papers and his nephew brandishing a rifle openly and blatantly in violation of the code and rules that no firearms could be carried or displayed openly. Later in the day, a clash between PPP and PML-F cadres resulted in guns being freely used and reaping a crop of at least 12 deaths and many injured. Although the Rangers were then deployed and a curfew imposed, the incident indicates the less than satisfactory security arrangements in what could have been easily identified as a hotly contested constituency. The outcome of the local bodies elections will become clear by and by. What will not become any clearer is why the present members of the ECP insist stubbornly in clinging to their posts when their credibility has been, to put it politely, called into question and at least one party, the PTI, has been demanding their resignation, albeit without success. In the absence of what seems the proper course for the present ECP setup to leave voluntarily, the aftermath of these local polls could present a case for their removal and the reconstitution of a fresh and credible ECP before the whole electoral process is reduced to such controversy that even the next general elections in 2018 become difficult if not impossible to hold, let alone for their results to be accepted across the board. Without a credible ECP and an electoral process whose results are broadly accepted by the stakeholders, the country could lurch from one crisis to the next until something either explodes or gives way. Since no member of the ECP can be removed except through the procedure laid down in Article 209, i.e. the same process that is involved in the removal of a judge of the superior judiciary through the Supreme Judicial Council, the unwillingness of the present ECP to give way may force the government’s hand to move references against the ECP members in the constitutionally approved manner.

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