Does the action by the Election Commission of Pakistan on the NA 75 by-election, in which the poll was countermanded and fresh polling ordered for March 8, while district and tehsil officials were ordered suspended, with the Punjab Chief Sectary and IGP summoned, owe itself to the fact that the Chief Election Commissioner is a former civil servant rather than a retired judge, or to the recent strictures by the Supreme Court on the ECP in the shape of remarks from the bench during the hearings of the Senate elections reference, on whether or not the present secret ballot should be converted to a secret ballot?
Though the Constitution has always provided for the CEC to be a former civil servant, by tradition, the position has always gone to a retired Supreme Court judge. There is a certain logic in this, for the CEC does not only have to conduct elections, but has also got to decide election disputes. Those disputes are heard just as cases are, with appeals against decisions going to the regular court system. Also, like the courts, the ECP can command the government executive to execute its orders in connection with the conduct of an election.
However, the job has usually been entrusted to a retired judge. India long ago used the provision to allow a retired civil servant to hold the job. A civil servant is not only familiar with the administrative aspect of the job, but has spent a lifetime interpreting and applying rules and laws. As civil servants also hold magisterial positions, and used to serve as Returning Officers of various constituencies, they were suited to the task. India has an almost unbroken tradition of civil servants being appointed to the post. Not so in Pakistan, where former judges have long held the post.
Thus the appointment of Sikander Sultan Raja was something of an anomaly, as he was a bureaucrat who had been appointed in January 2020 for a three-year tenure. He had just retired as railways secretary. He is not expected to supervise a general election, though he is responsible for not only the local body elections that are to occur throughout the country, but also the updating of the electoral rolls that are to precede them. The ECP will also carry out the delimitations for the local councils. The delimitations of the National and Provincial Assemblies are also his responsibility, but will only be carried out after the next census, due only in 2028, though it may go beyond that going by past precedents. Also, the CEC may find himself presiding over so many by-polls that it may look like a general election, if the opposition comes good on its promise to resign from the assemblies.
That might show why the PTI is showing a lack of political maturity in its clean-up campaign. There are political reasons to explain Gilani’s win. So long as there are, its claim that there was corruption will be contested. Anyway, the PTI now has to focus more on saving its government rather than enforcing its claims
India’s civil servant CECs winked at whatever happened, summed up pithily, even brutally by a constituency operator before the 1991 election, while explaining why the Samajwadi Janta Dal would lose a particular seat: “Hum nay bola ke Pappu Yadav ko ticket do. Chaar paanch sau booth capture karega, seat jeet jayega. Unhon nay Pappu Yadav ko ticket nahin diya. Seat haarainge.” India may be the world’s biggest democracy, but is certainly not its cleanest. Pakistani elections are very fair and free compared to Indian, with booth capturing not in practice. The Pakistan Democratic Movement may allege that the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) is ‘selected’, that the election was not fair, but clearly, the means of influencing the results have not included old-fashioned rigging. There may be a better award of tickets by one party, as well as a propaganda barrage against the one disfavoured, but the polling was not interfered with. There may have been dirty work in the transmission of results. But let alone 400, even one booth was not captured.
The purpose was to elect the more popular party. There had long been allegations by losers unwilling to admit that they had been beaten. That narrative of victimhood was most recently on exhibition in the USA, where one of the excuses for the loss were Electronic Voting Machines. Only a suit by the company making them stopped Republicans using EVMs as an explanation of how they were used to rig the elections.
One of the things that India has pioneered is the use of EVMs, as well as a paper trail that makes it possible to check the result manually. These are being widely suggested as a way of ensuring that elections have their fairness guaranteed. No one has ever seen what booth-capturing would do to an EVM. It should be noted that NA 95 saw a return to the 1977 election, which some still remember as having been exceptionally dirty. There was widespread booth capturing claimed, and apart from ballot stuffing, there was also widespread impersonation.
The ineptness of the riggers may have been because a paucity of imagination (and hence an excess of incompetence) had led to the use of ancient, outdated methods. The motivation was the same as in 1977: the desire to win. It should not be forgotten that the disputed by-election, according to unofficial results, had been won by the PML(N) candidate by about 3000 votes. However, the PTI candidate claimed victory, which would have raised hopes that he would make it to the Cabinet. He had won the seat in 2002 on a PML(Q) platform, and had become a minister of state. Also, even if the loss was accepted, it was a much improved result he had achieved compared to the general election, which he had lost by 40,000 votes.
The 1977 excesses are said to have been caused by the desire of individual candidates to win their contest, even if their party could afford them to lose. Then there was the desire to cut a dash before the party leader. Both motives can be seen in Daska. Neither is of any interest to the ECP.
The burden on the ECP can be seen from the fact that it has to ensure the freedom of the Senate poll from corrupt practices, according to the Supreme Court opinion on the secret ballot reference. Imran, the former cricketer, should be the first to realize that policing starts with practitioners. He might remember, when he began playing, that batsmen walked when they had snicked the ball to the keeper, fielders on the boundary indicated whether the ball had bounced inside the boundary for a four or over it for a six. Batsmen never walked for lbws, but otherwise players helped the umpire. Now they don’t, because of technology.
In the same way, the Punjab Assembly may have shown the way of how to achieve a political solution, with the election unopposed of senators reflecting the result if polling had taken place. The Punjab MPAs did not vote. However, there were polls in the other Provincial Assemblies, at which votes could have been sold, not that it showed up in the results.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the ECP must ensure the fairness of the Senate poll. Its immediate challenge will be the election of Yousaf Reza Gilani to the Senate. That was the only vote that went against the apparent party positions, though it is not certain that he won because of PTI defections, because Seraiki members (on the PTI ticket) voted for one of their own, or because allies chose a man who had been Speaker as well as PM.
That might show why the PTI is showing a lack of political maturity in its clean-up campaign. There are political reasons to explain Gilani’s win. So long as there are, its claim that there was corruption will be contested. Anyway, the PTI now has to focus more on saving its government rather than enforcing its claims.