Friday, June 1, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial June 1, 2018

ECP’s conspiracy theory

In the midst of various stakeholders, chief amongst them the PML-N, expressing varying degrees of apprehension about the credibility of the upcoming general elections, the Secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), Babar Yaqoob, told the Senate Standing Committee on Interior that anti-Pakistan ‘international forces’ wanted to sabotage the elections. Casting the issue in a sensitive light, Mr Yaqoob offered to brief the Committee on the issue in-camera. This has led to unease, questions, and calls for clarification of the Secretary’s statement. Former chairman Senate Raza Rabbani has in response written to key constitutional functionaries, including the outgoing prime minister, the nominated caretaker prime minister, Senate Chairman, National Assembly Speaker, Leaders of the House and Opposition in the Senate to summon the Secretary of the ECP to the Senate Committee of the Whole to brief it, in-camera if necessary, on the alleged conspiracy. Meanwhile the ECP spokesperson has sought to deflect the broadly felt angst on the issue by stating that the Secretary was merely dilating on the potential security issues vis-à-vis the elections. Of course the precedent of the 2013 elections is before us, when liberal parties were constrained from campaigning because of terrorist threats. But even that is a different kettle of fish from an alleged ‘international conspiracy’. An unnecessary controversy has been stirred by the Secretary’s remarks. Whether he has been misconstrued or not, surely it would be in the fitness of things for the ECP to officially issue a clarification regarding this averment by its secretary. As it is the 2018 elections are being held in an atmosphere of great political uncertainty, with the security apparatus warning of the possibility of terrorist destabilisation. No doubt then, security must be ensured, but when the constitutional body charged with conducting a free, fair and transparent election stokes ‘imaginary’ fears of an international conspiracy against the elections without a shred of proof or evidence being made available, it can only add to the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Even before a single ballot has been cast on the scheduled election date of July 25 this year, a private think tank, PILDAT, has issued a report based on one year’s monitoring of trends within the polity to declare that at least in two contentious areas, the pre-polls process has not been fair. The two areas are whether the military is playing a neutral role and whether the media is under the influence of state institutions and vested interests. The answer in the case of the former appears to be no, with a separate assessment of the judiciary’s role as independent and neutral also falling into the category of ‘unfair’. As far as the media is concerned, the report’s finding is that it is not operating without state and non-state actors circumscribing its independence and freedom. These conclusions, based on a rating system of fairness or otherwise, accord with the general perception of non-partisan opinion in the country. Despite this negative ‘report card’, the PILDAT report is nevertheless confident that free, fair and transparent polls are possible if all the stakeholders realize the possible catastrophic outcome of these trends and step back from the brink. Elections anywhere, and particularly in our history, are predictable only up to a point, provided they are free of manipulation. Whatever the highs and lows of various political parties’ fortunes, it is after all the voter who has the last word. If the ECP with the help of the incoming caretaker government can ensure that the voter will have complete freedom on polling day to have his/her say, no internal pressures or so-called international conspiracies can alter that indelible fact. This is the lesson of history generally, and of our history in particular. Preconceived partisan outcomes have never served, and will likely never serve, the interests of a democratic system, and by extrapolation therefrom, the interests of the country. Let the dice fall as they may on July 25 and may the best party (in the eyes of the electorate) win. That is the only outcome that promises stability and continuation of the march forward to a democratic system that has been haltingly, but definitely, playing out since 2008.

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