Dawn Editorial 9th February 2024

Election reflections

AND just like that, Election 2024 is over.

Lacklustre from the beginning, the exercise concluded with a whimper last evening. Amidst limited reporting due to the suspension of communication services, there were some reports of delays in the polling process and various violations of rules and the election code of conduct.

Thankfully, though, no major incidents of violence were reported and voting seems to have concluded in most places smoothly and uneventfully. It seems that all that remains now is the counting of votes and declaration of winners. As results trickle in overnight, we will learn how many chose to exercise their right to franchise on this historic occasion.

Till a clearer picture emerges, some reflections on the exercise: These elections had been critical for Pakistan for various important reasons. The country is mired in unprecedented economic and social challenges, which cannot be solved except by a stable government that enjoys strong public support for its decisions. Given its dependence on international assistance, it is also important for it to stabilise socially so that lenders and investors can feel safe about their decisions. With so many different forces pulling the country at its seams, it was almost good luck that a general election became due last year.

All that was needed was for the ECP to let candidates campaign without restrictions, prepare the grounds for a clean and non-controversial contest, assist the country’s adult population in freely exercising their right to self-determination, conduct a transparent count of their ballots, and quietly and respectfully bow out.

As history will bear witness, it failed on almost all of those counts.

From repeatedly delaying the elections on one pretext or the other to failing to protect the legitimacy of its last act, it betrayed its mandate by organising an exercise that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. It is difficult not to be disappointed: given the number of times the ECP hid behind the Constitution’s ‘free and fair’ condition to justify putting them off ‘till it was ready’, one would have imagined the exercise, whenever it was eventually held, would be largely irreproachable.

Of course, the blame does not lie with the ECP alone.

The caretaker government and the entire machinery of the state are equally culpable in robbing it of its sanctity. Their actions worsened political polarisation, and they did not know when to stop. As a result, the exercise was doomed to controversy well before it began. It already seems clear that it will not provide any closure for the country’s political crisis. Crisis and instability will likely continue to plague the nation, with dissent kept in check through the use of fear tactics. It is a shame that such a momentous opportunity has been so carelessly lost.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2024

Rushed restructuring

AS an elected government will take the reins in the next few weeks, it is pertinent to ask why the caretaker set-up is bulldozing the privatisation and restructuring of state-owned enterprises. The ECP had only a few days ago stopped the interim administration from overhauling the FBR, telling the caretakers to focus their energies on ‘routine’ matters. Similarly, the election watchdog had also stopped the interim government from going ahead with PIA’s restructuring. Unfortunately, the caretakers have flouted the ECP’s specific orders regarding the flag carrier, as on Tuesday the federal cabinet approved a plan to restructure PIA. The cabinet has also approved the privatisation of the First Women Bank.

What sort of message are the caretakers — who will return to their day jobs very soon — sending by defying the ECP? This sort of behaviour tells the common citizens that even those who are supposed to be guardians of the law flout it at will. Moreover, whether it is streamlining the tax machinery, or privatising SOEs, the question arises: what’s the rush? The caretakers’ mandate is limited to holding polls and running day-to-day affairs, and that mandate will expire soon. Why, then, is the interim set-up taking decisions that will have far-reaching consequences for the state and taxpayer? Even if one is to consider the (limited) powers granted to the caretakers by the last parliament in July 2023, the decisions the interim set-up is taking appear to be a ‘creative’ reinterpretation of these provisions, as the ECP has reminded the administration of its restricted role. There can be little doubt that loss-making SOEs, such as PIA, which haemorrhages hundreds of billions of rupees in losses, need to be privatised and that taxpayers cannot continue to bear the burden of these white elephants. A financial reckoning of SOEs is essential. But this job must be left to the incoming parliament, answerable to voters, and should not be rushed through.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2024

In the dark

IN blatant disregard of the sanctity of democracy, the caretaker government, abetted by a conspicuously passive ECP, suspended mobile and internet services on election day, citing security threats.

The move rendered thousands of voters clueless as to where their polling stations were, as the ECP’s 8300 SMS service could only be operated on mobile networks. The decision not only defies court orders mandating uninterrupted internet connectivity during the polls, it raises a glaring question: how does snapping communication channels deter terrorism?

The rationale is mind-boggling.

Terrorism, which predates the internet, cannot be effectively combated with such indiscriminate shutdowns. Instead, these actions hinder critical communication among citizens and emergency services, potentially compromising rather than enhancing security. The decision is part of a broader pattern of behaviour by the caretakers and ECP that smacks of bias.

In the lead-up to the election, we witnessed what has been decried by some politicians as pre-poll rigging with PTI candidates harassed, detained, and prevented from filing nomination papers. The prime minister’s admission in a foreign media interview that he could not guarantee free and fair elections undermines any remaining shreds of credibility.

Moreover, the chief election commissioner’s attempt to distance himself and the ECP from the decision to suspend services, attributing it to law-enforcement agencies, is a feeble attempt to absolve himself of responsibility.

The ECP’s role is not to be a passive observer but to actively ensure the integrity of the electoral process. Their failure to do so, and to protect the rights of citizens to freely express their will at the polls, is a betrayal of their mandate. The actions of the caretakers and the ECP have not only disenfranchised voters and compromised the electoral process but have also set a dangerous precedent for future polls.

Severing communications under the guise of security, the pre-election harassment of opposition candidates, and the flouting of court orders and democratic norms paint a picture of institutions that have lost sight of their basic duty. The caretaker government and ECP must be held accountable for violating the sacred trust of the people. Their actions stand in stark contrast to their raison d’être: holding fair and transparent polls.

The people deserve better; they deserve an unimpeded chance to shape their destinies through the ballot box, without the shadow of manipulation or coercion.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2024


February 20, 2024

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