Make elections non-controversial

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ELECTIONS offer an opportunity to political parties to highlight their democratic credentials but lack of consensus on related issues make them controversial in Pakistan. After a lot of hue and cry that one witnessed in connection with elections in Gilgit-Baltistan, which the opposition alleges were rigged, the country’s political parties are poles apart on the question of when and how to hold the elections for the upper house of Parliament while sudden announcement of by-elections in eight constituencies by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in the midst of intensified second wave of Coronavirus could also raise many questions about timing and motives.
The stakes are high in the Senate elections as these are expected to give numerical edge to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has been facing problems in getting legislation approved from the upper house dominated presently by the opposition parties. It was, perhaps, with this in view that Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), publicly declared intention of the alliance to break the electoral college for the Senate elections, a reference to proposed resignations of the opposition members and possible dissolution of the Sindh Assembly where one of the component parties of the alliance is in power. In a counter-move, the ruling party decided to hold Senate elections ahead of possible schedule (in February) and through show of hands after seeking advice from the Supreme Court. While there is nothing wrong in both the moves as precedents are there to hold Senate elections in February and balloting through show of hands could ensure transparency in polls in the backdrop of oft-repeated allegations that loyalties and votes are sold and purchased in the Senate elections; the modus operandi to realize these objectives has irked the opposition, which is describing these moves as illegal and unconstitutional. This is because they believe it is the sole prerogative of the Election Commission to issue schedule for elections and the procedure of show of hands cannot be introduced without amending the Constitution, which is not possible without cooperation of the opposition. Vice President of PML(N) Maryam Nawaz, while speaking to media-men in Lahore on Thursday, claimed that the Government has lost control over its members and that is why it is trying to hold the Senate elections through show of hands, threatening also to knock the doors of the Supreme Court on the issue of advancing schedule of the elections. The opposition leaders also claim that the Government was under pressure due to the mass contact campaign and protest movement of the PDM. On the other hand, the Government is also doing its homework to implement its plans and has started taking its alliance on board on the crucial questions of when and how to hold the Senate elections.
MQM-P has supported the move but the Attorney-General of Pakistan Khalid Javed Khan clarified in an interview that his office has not given suggestion for show of hands and that otherwise too show of hands procedure was not implementable in a multiple voting system. Instead, he said, his office has proposed an open ballot paper but it is debatable whether or not this would be perfectly in line with the spirit of the Constitution.  It is now to be seen what opinion is formed by the apex court (if the Government did seek its advice) on the issue of change of procedure for elections without amending the Constitution and what the Election Commission says in respect of early holding of elections. However, there are risks of making institutions controversial as well, as has been apprehended by some opposition leaders. PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has proposed convening a meeting of the PDM’s leadership to mull over the moves of the Government and formulate a strategy for the purpose but one can foresee the outcome on the basis of individual reaction by constituent parties of the alliance. The plans of the ECP to issue schedule for by-elections would also pose a tricky challenge to the opposition as the exercise is being done at a time when the PDM is threatening to resign from assemblies. By taking part in the by-elections, it could damage its own position and a boycott could ultimately prove to be a mistake. The only way forward for the Government and the opposition is to sit on the negotiating table and sort out differences including those relating to electoral reforms as to restore the credibility of the electoral process.