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View Point: ‘Irregularities’ Galore

 Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafiq finds it hard to deal with the embarrassment caused by an election tribunal’s decision to annul NA-125 result and order re-election. He has been using the verdict to absolve himself of any wrongdoing, saying the tribunal based its verdict on irregularities and rejected his opponents’ rigging allegations, and that he has not be disqualified. Yet he has also been ranting against the verdict, talking of the so-called London Plan, suggesting thereby that the tribunal had acted out of an ulterior motive.

Even after having been de-seated, Saad did not resign as minister, waiting instead for the Election Commission to denotify his National Assembly membership. He would have done himself and his party much good by taking the bad moment in stride. The party, in fact, should be bracing for more embarrassment. Indications are that a similar fate awaits Speaker of the National Assembly, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, who represents NA-122 after defeating PTI Chairman Imran Khan.

It would not have been such a serious matter for the PML-N had a couple of its lesser known members lost their assembly seats. But the case of Saad, a minister and one of the Prime Minister’s most trusted lieutenants, is different. So would be the case in the event the Speaker too loses his seat. It’s bad for the PML-N’s public image. Not surprising, the party sees it as a collective challenge and is said to be weighing its options, ie, whether to go for re-polling or challenge the tribunal’s verdict in the Supreme Court while seeking a stay order. It is not an easy decision to make. For, seeking stay order will come across as lack of confidence to win again. If Saad stands for re-election and loses, it will be used by the PTI to prove that he owed his earlier victory to unfair means. The challenger from the PTI has nothing to lose. Even if the outcome goes against him he can climb to the moral high ground and claim that all the PTI wanted was a fair fight.

While ordering re-polling in both NA-125 and PP-155 under it, the election tribunal said the petitioner, PTI’s Hamid Khan, had failed to establish rigging charges, but that irregularities were found which raised doubts about the validity of the election. The returning officers (ROs), said the tribunal, changed the polling staff shortly before the Election Day without informing the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). (The ROs, drawn from the subordinate judiciary, were answerable to their own department rather than the ECP, and hence acted in an arbitrary fashion.) More to the point, corroborating what most impartial commentators have been saying, the tribunal notes in its judgement that ROs received vote count statements (forms 14&15) from presiding officers without their signatures and voter thumb impressions, counterfoils, even electoral rolls. Furthermore, the ROs had prepared final results without opening the polling bags, rejected ballot papers, and the number of votes challenged.

It is useful also to recall here that at an earlier point the tribunal had appointed an investigation commission headed by a retired sessions judge. The commission report, among other things, had stated that “each polling bag of the constituency is in condition of such a mess that it can be said to be trash and rubbish for reasons best known to the polling personnel. The polling bag of each polling station shows that the process of the election carried out is the result of gross mismanagement.”

The question that remains to be answered is this, who is responsible for this gross mismanagement? In the present case, the election tribunal has pointed a finger at the ROs. In fact, the PPP Co-Chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, was the first political leader to call the last election ‘ROs election’. The PTI, of course, has been consistently accusing the ROs of alleged rigging. It would be only proper therefore to settle the issue by pinning responsibility and punishing whosoever is responsible for the ‘irregularities.’ It matters little if the word used is ‘rigging’ or ‘irregularity’ since the result is the same: stealing of the public mandate. The election tribunal for Lahore NA-125 has asked the ECP to introduce a legislation to punish election staff for negligence of duty. In fact, such a legal provision already exists but has never been used. All those responsible should be made to answer for their acts of omission and commission.

As it is, all the major parties have complained of wrongdoing in the last elections. That means if at all rigging did take place it was not an organised affair in favour of a particular party or parties. ‘Irregularities’, however, were widespread and favoured whichever party was in a position in whatever part of the country to benefit from them. The election was a messy and less than an honest affair. Overall, therefore, the outcome is not truly reflective of the people’s choice.

The noisy protest and agitation of the last two years against alleged electoral rigging may have a certain controversial aspect to them. Such strivings, nonetheless, are necessary for creating a level-playing field for all. The resultant Judicial Commission hearing alleged rigging of 2013 elections is expected to make far-reaching recommendations in the light of the complainants’ submissions as well as election tribunals decisions. The parliamentary electoral reform committee has its own contribution to make. The case of Khawaja Saad Rafiq’s dismissal also needs to be seen as a part of an evolutionary process in our democratic system rather than an individual politician’s reversal of fortune or prospects of revival.

Saida Fazal, "View Point: ‘Irregularities’ Galore," Business recorder. 2015-05-07.
Keywords: Political science , Politics , Election , Election commission , Judiciary , Irregularities , Electoral reform , ROs , PPP , ECP