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Government Seeks to Sow Discord within ECP

by Newsweek Pakistan

Photo courtesy PID

Ministers urge autonomous body’s members to ‘review’ CEC’s decisions; vow 2023 general elections will not be held without electoral reforms

Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain on Sunday appeared to encourage discord within the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), urging the members from Balochistan and Sindh to “review” the decisions of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja. The ECP currently only has two members, as the government has yet to appoint replacements for Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, whose terms expired earlier this year.

“I would like to ask the two members of the ECP to review the decisions of the CEC,” he said at a press conference in Islamabad that was also attended by Science and Technology Minister Shibli Faraz. Claiming that the ECP should not make “fundamental” decisions until the members from Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkwha had been appointed, he continued his criticism of the CEC, slamming him for opposing the use of electronic voting machines in the next general elections.

The minister reiterated his allegations of the CEC being biased for the opposition and urged Raja to resign from his post over his “political” role. “Politicians can talk on issues openly and they are even criticized … but the judiciary and the ECP should not portray themselves as opposition leader,” he said and accused the CEC of being part of a campaign to “discredit” the government’s attempt to introduce controversial electronic voting machines.

Fawad alleged that the ECP had not considered arguments supporting the use of EVMs—which are only used in 8 countries right now—claiming voters’ trust in elections in the Philippines had increased from 35 percent in 2007—before the use of EVMs—to 75 percent and 89 percent in the 2010 and 2019 elections, respectively. He claimed the conditions in the Philippines and Pakistan were similar. “The way the positive material was excluded shows it clearly that the CEC, for a purpose, is against [electoral] reforms,” he claimed.

“If he [CEC] doesn’t want to stay away from controversies and believes that he can contribute in politics, then he should resign and start doing politics,” he reiterated, adding that the government was showing “great restraint” despite the ECP issuing notices to him and Railways Minister Azam Swati to prove their allegations against the autonomous body. He claimed the government could have filed a contempt petition against the CEC for refusing to implement the Supreme Court’s instructions to use technology in the Senate elections held in March.

“Give me an example where state institutions leave the president’s meeting or the parliamentary committee meeting. Is this a country or a banana republic?” he said, in reference to recent walkouts of ECP members from meetings intended to resolve the EVM controversy. “The federal cabinet is tolerating all this with patience. Even personal attacks were made, but we did not take any action,” he claimed, even though multiple ministers have lashed out at the ECP and the CEC repeatedly over the past few months.

Reforms, then polls

The information minister said the next general elections would only be held after reforms had been introduced, reiterating that the government would get bills passed through a joint session of Parliament.

“We can’t leave everything and go for the 2028 [election]. The 2023 general elections will be based on and only possible after reforms—there is no other way except this,” he claimed.

The science and technology minister, meanwhile, reiterated his claims of the ECP’s objections to the EVMs being largely related to the ECP’s own capacity problems. He said these objections were “invalid,” and accused the ECP of using “delay tactics” so EVMs could not be procured prior to the next polls.

“Why didn’t the ECP take any step to use voting machines in around 10 by-elections held in recent months,” he asked and accused the ECP of “bias” if it did not introduce the EVMs.

Both ministers repeated that the government would like the opposition and ECP to work with them, adding that they should offer alternates for reforms if they did not find the government’s policies acceptable.

Opposition response

Reacting to the press conference, PMLN spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb urged the ECP to “punish” the ministers criticizing it. She accused the federal ministers of trying to “blackmail” the ECP “on the orders of P.M. Imran Khan,” alleging pressure was being increased on the institution to secure a favorable ruling the foreign funding case pending against the PTI.

Claiming the government had no answers to the questions raised by the ECP and Parliament, she accused the government of attacking constitutional bodies by “provoking ECP members against the CEC.” She said the ECP should take legal action against the federal ministers under Article 10 of the Election Act.

“The serious allegations against the ECP are a proof of the government’s non-democratic and dictatorial mindset,” she added.

Separately, PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said the latest press conference suggested the ministers had become “unhinged” and were seeking to make the institution controversial. The government, he said, appears to want to “damage the ECP’s reputation so it can get away with rigging in the next elections,” adding that the EVMs were part of the same “conspiracy to steal the elections.”

He urged all opposition parties, lawyers, journalists and other civil society members to extend their support to the ECP.

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