Monday, February 12, 2024

Saving the electoral process

Elections that are free, fair, and transparent allow voters to voice their opinions, choose representatives, and hold those in authority responsible

Polling officers count ballot papers during the general election in Karachi, Pakistan February 8, 2024. —Reuters
Polling officers count ballot papers during the general election in Karachi, Pakistan February 8, 2024. —Reuters

The election process, which represents the people's collective voice and will, is the cornerstone of democracy. It stands for the essential idea that every person has the right to influence how their community is governed.

Elections that are free, fair, and transparent allow voters to voice their opinions, choose representatives, and hold those in authority responsible.

In anticipation of the new year in 2024, Pakistan stood at the threshold of a significant milestone: the opportunity to shape its governance through democratic elections. After a period of anticipation, the Supreme Court of Pakistan set the date for the elections as the 8th of February, a moment eagerly awaited by the nation. The elections symbolized more than just a routine political event; this was an opportunity to chart the course of the nation’s future. Among the myriad of choices, the call for “haqeeqi azadi” resonated deeply with many Pakistanis, finding expression through the support of Imran Khan and his vision.

As election day approached, the nation brimmed with anticipation, with citizens eagerly preparing to cast their votes and participate in the democratic process. It was a testament to the enduring commitment of the Pakistani people to democracy and their unwavering belief in the power of their voices to shape the course of their nation. Regrettably, events preceding the elections and unfolding during the results announcement have cast a shadow of doubt on the legitimacy of the entire electoral process.

In the lead-up to the elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), one of the nation's prominent political parties, faced significant challenges, including the denial of its iconic bat symbol by the Election Commission (ECP), a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court upon appeal. This decision, occurring in a country with an estimated 62% illiteracy rate, raised suspicions of attempts to sow confusion among voters and potentially hinder the PTI's electoral success.

Furthermore, PTI members were compelled to contest the elections independently, albeit with PTI support but without official party affiliation. This arrangement implies that even if these members secure votes, they could switch allegiance to other parties without facing significant consequences. In a political landscape prevalent with corruption, this scenario raises concerns about the possibility of independent members forming alliances with rival parties, potentially preventing PTI's path to power despite electoral support.

The obstacles faced by the PTI extended beyond the denial of its electoral symbol and the requirement for members to contest elections independently. Senior PTI figures, including party founder Imran Khan, were arrested, with Khan himself barred from participating in the elections. Furthermore, key PTI members, such as Dr Yasmin Rashid, had to engage in the electoral process while incarcerated.

These actions collectively raise serious doubts regarding the legitimacy of the electoral process, fueling perceptions of premeditated outcomes. The orchestrated series of impediments faced by the PTI not only undermines the principles of democracy but also calls into question the fairness and transparency of the electoral landscape in Pakistan.

The return of Nawaz Sharif, who had previously been sentenced to 10 years in prison and disqualified for life from holding public office, coupled with the Supreme Court's decision to lift the lifetime ban on him, added another layer of scepticism. This development raised concerns about a tilt in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to facilitate their return to power. Such actions contribute to a perception of unfairness and undermine public trust in the electoral system.

Despite the challenges and controversies surrounding the electoral process, the people of Pakistan demonstrated remarkable civic engagement by turning out in large numbers to cast their votes, fueled by the hope that their mandates would be respected, and their desired outcomes achieved.

Initial indications suggested a surge in support for independent candidates, with unofficial results reflecting their sweeping victories across the polls. However, as midnight approached, an abrupt halt in the release of results arose, prolonging the wait for official outcomes. This sudden delay fueled suspicions among the populace, raising concerns of potential electoral rigging or manipulation.

When questioned about the delay in releasing election results, the Election Commission attributed it to the nationwide closure of internet and mobile services. The ECP had assured that it wouldn't hinder voting, as the applications used for tallying votes didn't rely on internet connectivity. Despite the assurance, until 2am on Friday, several constituencies had barely tallied 10 per cent of the vote, according to local media reports.

Section 84 of the Pakistan Election Rules, 2017 also required Returning Officers (ROs) to submit scanned Form 47 with provisional results electronically by 2am after polling day. In case of failure, they are required to inform the ECP of the reasons for the delay and the RO must send compiled provisional results by 10am; however, there has been a failure by the ROs and the ECP to meet these requirements.

Pakistan, seen as the fifth largest democracy globally, continues to grapple with challenges in upholding democratic principles. The act of casting a vote is often an expression of hope, yet the reality often proves disheartening. Such was the case in Pakistan on Friday, where the electoral landscape witnessed abrupt transformations overnight. Candidates like Bilawal Bhutto, Salman Akram Raja, Yasmeen Rashid, Rehana Dar, and others appeared to be securing significant leads, only to find their substantial margins evaporate, ultimately leading to the victory of opposing candidates. This sudden reversal of fortunes has ignited widespread suspicions of electoral rigging, casting a shadow of doubt over the integrity and fairness of the electoral process.

In addition to the election proceedings, candidates have come forward with alarming allegations regarding the conduct of Returning Officers (ROs). They assert that the results were not disclosed in the presence of the candidates as mandated, and a troubling inconsistency has emerged between Form 47 and Form 45. This conflict has created a cloud of uncertainty not only among the candidates themselves but also among the broader public.

Candidates, deceived by the promising figures on Form 45 indicating their victory, were bewildered to find conflicting outcomes on Form 47, signaling their defeat. This absurdity has sparked widespread disbelief about the transparency and fairness of the electoral process.

Consequently, a growing chorus of voices, encompassing both political aspirants and concerned citizens, has begun to question the legitimacy of the election results. As these claims echo across the nation, they underscore deeper concerns about the integrity of Pakistan's democratic institutions and the imperative for thorough scrutiny and accountability in the electoral process.

The electoral process seems to have lost the confidence of the Pakistani populace, casting a shadow of doubt over the very foundations of democracy in the country. The loss of confidence in the integrity of the electoral system highlights a grave need for reform. In the face of these challenges, it is imperative for politicians driven by ambition to regard the voice of the people and gracefully accept electoral outcomes, recognizing that the ultimate authority lies in the hands of the public.

As Pakistan navigates through this turbulent period, fostering a culture of accountability, transparency, and respect for democratic principles is vital in restoring faith in the electoral process and safeguarding the future of democracy in the nation.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this piece are the writer's own and don't necessarily reflect's editorial policy.

Originally published in The News