Dawn Editorial 18th February 2024

Power protests

PROTESTS against extensive power outages are not uncommon in Pakistan, particularly in the hot summer months. Yet the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been demonstrating against power cuts even in winter. This is understandable when the region’s residents have to daily put up with 22 hours of load-shedding. Only a few weeks ago, region-wide protests were held over a range of issues, including removal of the wheat subsidy and imposition of the Finance Act 2023. Load-shedding was also a key driver of the protests. Matters appeared to be heading towards a resolution when on Feb 5, members of the Awami Action Committee — an umbrella body bringing together political parties and civil society that led the demonstrations — met representatives of the regional government to ‘temporarily’ suspend the protest campaign. But on Thursday, the protesters were back on the roads in several GB towns, saying that nothing had been done to end the power cuts. The demonstrators further claimed that VIPs were being provided 24-hour electricity through “special power lines”.

The problem in GB is not just about inhumanely long hours of load-shedding; it is about an apathetic state that does not listen to the people, and does not deliver on its promises. Though the region has an elected government, this dispensation has failed to meet the aspirations of the people, perhaps because the final say on GB’s matters comes from Islamabad. The incoming federal government needs to provide the regional administration with the tools needed to alleviate the concerns of the locals, while the centre must use all powers at its disposal to give GB’s people their full rights. When all other avenues fail, people use their democratic right to protest in order to highlight their concerns. If the GB administration had listened to the local population, and if the centre had done more to improve the region’s quality of life, people would not have to frequently demonstrate.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2024

Fafen report

IT seems that, contrary to what had been widely assumed, the overall level of public participation in the electoral process was lower this time compared to 2018, a post-election analysis conducted by the Free and Fair Election Network shows. Voter participation, measured as ‘turnout’, is the proportion of how many voters actually showed up to vote compared to the total number of registered voters in the electoral rolls. Fafen’s analysis, which relies on Form 47 data published by the ECP, reveals that turnout slipped from 52.1pc in 2018 to 47.6pc this year. There is a silver lining, however: nearly 5.8m more citizens cast their votes in 2024 compared to 2018. The anomaly — more votes, less turnout — was due to the record addition of 22.6m voters to the electoral rolls before this year’s election. A further investigation into how many voters in different age brackets voted will shed more light on whether the huge addition of young voters had a net positive impact on turnout or not. This is something that has far-reaching implications for Pakistan’s electoral politics, and observers and analysts will be keen to find out.

KP and Balochistan recorded the lowest turnouts, with the former doing slightly worse than the latter. Punjab recorded the sharpest decline from 2018, with the overall turnout declining to 51.6pc in 2024 from 56.8pc the last time the general election was held. Though it would be premature to chalk the lower turnout up to specific reasons considering the paucity of data available, it is hoped it does not represent a secular decline in citizens’ enthusiasm for the democratic process. Indeed, the results this time have signalled that many Pakistani voters still believe that their vote can be used to send a strong message to powerful quarters. The exercise may lose some credibility due to the controversy over the manipulation of results, and the ECP will be to blame for this — however, considering how unprecedented the results have been, it is hoped that they will encourage even more people to vote and make sure they get heard the next time. Lastly, and most positively, the increase in women voters was more than double the increase in men voters. This means that women were generally more inclined to vote this year — a trend we hope continues to hold.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2024

Chaos unfolding

IT seems there will be no avoiding the inevitable for the ECP. Rawalpindi commissioner Liaquat Ali Chattha’s Saturday press conference, during which he dropped bombshell allegations against the CEC, has strengthened the demands for an immediate and independent audit of election results. The senior officer, while expressing regret for “facilitating” the rigging of election results, asked to be punished while also holding the respective heads of the judiciary and ECP responsible for “the theft of the people’s mandate”.

Lending credence to allegations that have been made by scores of contestants from different political parties over the past 10 days or so, Mr Chattha said that, on his orders, candidates who were winning with large margins in the constituencies of the Rawalpindi division were made to lose, while the losing candidates were declared victorious.

“I am taking responsibility for this wrongdoing and telling you that the chief election commissioner and the chief justice are also completely involved,” he alleged.

A commissioner is no ordinary officer. They are some of the most powerful bureaucrats in service, handpicked by the state to oversee entire administrative divisions. By virtue of their position, they exercise immense power and influence over the machinery of the state. It is, therefore, no surprise that Mr Chattha’s ‘confession’ has caused quite a storm. It has been widely extolled as an example of a bureaucrat resisting pressures from powerful quarters and choosing to stand on the right side of history.

However, one must also remain wary of confirmation bias. Humans have a tendency to believe anything that affirms what we already hold to be true. For this reason, it is in everyone’s best interest that Mr Chattha’s claims are immediately and thoroughly investigated and that any supporting evidence that is unearthed be brought before the public. The claims he has made cannot be dismissed; at the same time, however, one must exercise increased prudence during times of growing uncertainty.

These elections will be remembered as perhaps the most controversial electoral exercise held in the last few decades. The credit for this unforgettable ignominy will accrue mainly to the ECP, which, despite being empowered by the law in every possible manner to conduct “free, fair, impartial and inclusive’” polls, betrayed its mandate in the worst possible way.

Its failure to ensure transparency in the vote-counting process, in particular, has caused unaffordable chaos, with multiple stakeholders now unwilling to accept the results given how stark the irregularities seem. Instead of addressing the public’s apprehensions or assuring them that issues in results tabulation will be promptly looked into, the ECP has chosen to stay mum. Now, much more serious allegations are being levelled against senior officials of the state. The commission must wake up. Its silence is causing irreparable harm.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2024


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